PAYSON -- Though bears and humans can co-exist, they cannot intermingle, as with an overeager black bear trapped in the Payson Lakes area Wednesday.
The 2-year-old male bear had to be euthanized after three days of rummaging through trash, hanging around campsites and eventually losing its fear of humans.
Part of the Uintah-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, Payson Lakes Campground is indeed bear country, but any human interaction beyond an occasional glimpse is cause for concern, especially when it progresses to familiarity or even aggression, said Scott Root, Division of Wildlife conservation outreach manager.
"Nobody wants to see a bear put down," said Lorraine Januzelli, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman. But when the Payson bear was indifferent to barking dogs, banging pots and pans and car alarms, the line was crossed.
It started with a few sightings on Sunday, Payson Lakes campground host Christine Muniz said. She heard the animal padding around the bear-proof garbage bin early in the morning, and saw it dragging a bag of garbage across the street. That bag belonged in the bin, which is locked each night, but sometimes campers don't understand that even a piece of chewing gum, a bowl of dog food or an emptied cooler can get animals sniffing around, she said.
"You can get cited for leaving a messy campsite, but nothing in the regulation says you can't leave a tote out with food in it," district ranger Doug Jones said -- all they can do is strongly advise against it.
From Sunday to Tuesday campers kept coming up to Muniz, now with tales of chewed-up coolers, gas cans and even a water float toy on which the bear had briefly entertained himself. The bear also dented the roof of a car and bluff-charged a man (a halted warning charge), she said.
All the while the DWR evaluated the bear's actions, ultimately deciding Tuesday that trapping the animal and closing the campground was appropriate, Root said. All the Payson Lakes recreators were relocated to Blackhawk for a day.
A barrel trap was laid near the picnic bench at Campsite 18, which the bear had been frequenting. At one end of the open barrel lay a rigged bag of donuts -- including bear claws, ironically -- which, when grabbed Wednesday afternoon, triggered a door that locked the bear inside, he said.
Though the bears actions were mostly benign, DWR rangers and biologists determined that euthanasia was necessary.
"It's a beautiful animal, and showed almost child-like behavior," Root said. "It's all cute until a certain point."
The episode underscores the need to educate campers about bear safety and safe camping practices, Blackhawk Campground host Sue Shaley said.
"People say, 'Is this really bear country?' One girls camp leader was upset at me for talking to her girls about it. But I'm not trying to frighten them; I'm educating."
Much of the "Bear Aware" initiative is carried out by the campground hosts, who live all summer long on site. They work under American Land & Leisure, with whom the Forest Service contracts. Each camper is greeted with a bear pamphlet, a trash bag and tips for camping in bear country. Because regulations don't outline bear safety, it's up to the hosts to keep the camp clean and as unattractive to bears as possible. For the most part, people respond well, Muniz said.
"We'd rather educate than have punitive measures," Januzelli said.
Simply put, food items and other strong-smelling products should be stashed in the car, not in coolers, tents or bags, they say. Even burnt food on grills would be enough to attract a bear, and should be cleaned and pitched in the locked trash bin. More often than not, Jones said, bear encounters are a result of food being left out. Bears that are "repeat-offenders" often have too many easy meals in their memory.
"If the bear comes in, and we don't reward it with food, then we make noise and scare it, it leaves with a negative experience and won't come back," Root said. He said there is an estimated population of 3,000 black bears in the state, but relatively few interactions with humans.
• Matt Reichman can be reached at (801) 344-2907 or firstname.lastname@example.org.