PATTERSON — Louisiana black bears have been digging through trash cans and dining on pet food in St. Mary Parish, roaming into residential areas for a meal at a time when their normal diet of nuts and berries is in short supply, state and local officials say.

Black bears have long been a presence in the subdivisions that push up against coastal woodlands, but the animals have been unusually active this year, said Maria Davidson, a bear specialist with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

“For some reason this year, it is outrageous,” said Patterson Mayor Rodney Grogan.

Grogan said the animals have ventured farther into the city than ever before, and a bear recently attacked a dog that had chased it.

The dog survived, he said, but the incident has made some residents a bit uneasy.

Davidson said the uptick in bear activity is unusual because, under normal conditions, many of the bears would have been denning at this time of year — a period of lethargy during the winter that is similar to hibernation.

For some reason, she said, it seems bears in the coastal areas were unable to fatten up enough for the denning period, meaning the animals have remained active and hungry.

“He can’t lay around all winter and not eat. He’s just not fat enough,” Davidson said.

With natural food scarce in the late winter, bears see residential garbage and pet food as a filling alternative.

“Human garbage and pet food has an inordinate amount of calories compared with what they are used to,” said Davidson said.

Davidson said she has trapped two bears in recent weeks and moved them away from neighborhoods in Patterson, and there have also been experiments with a special garbage can that blast pepper spray when a bear yanks a lever on it.

But harassment and trapping is only so effective, because the bears will keep returning if subdivisions offer a good source of sustenance, she said.

“You can’t teach a bear not to eat,” Davidson said.

The key, she said, is for residents to do everything they can to make their neighborhoods less appealing to bears, such as taking pet food inside at night and keeping garbage in a clean, secure container.

A public meeting on black bear issues is scheduled for 6 p.m. March 25 at Patterson City Hall.

St. Mary Parish, in partnership with the state, began a program four years ago to distribute “bear proof” garbage cans with special latches.

Nearly 1,300 of the special garbage cans have been distributed, about half of those in the Patterson area, said Catherine Siracusa, who oversees the garbage can program as part of her job as “bear conflict officer” for St. Mary Parish government.

Siracusa also works to educate residents about why bears are attracted to some homes and about bears in general, including addressing what she says is an unwarranted fear about possible bear attacks.

“With black bears, that is so far from what they are,” she said.

Davidson said she expects the bear problems to decrease as spring weather brings a return of dewberries and other natural food sources.

If residents are careful to keep garbage and pet food secure, bears would just stay in the woods, she said.

The Louisiana black bear was listed a threatened in 1992, a demise attributed mainly to habitat loss.

There has been an ongoing effort on the part of conservation groups and state and federal agencies to rebuild the black bear population, which now lives in three areas — coastal St. Mary and Iberia parishes, the upper Atchafalaya Basin and the Tensas River Basin farther north.

Davidson said the only real issue with human interaction is in the coastal population of bears, where the habitat, even in normal years, is marginal and where large subdivisions sit right on the edge of coastal woodlands.

“Every bear on the coast lives a short walk from a house,” she said.

To report bear problems, call the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries at 1 (800) 442-2511.