Bears, Man’s New Best Friend?

Brynn Grimley writes:

Ah black bears, where would we be without them?

Since joining the Kitsap Sun four years ago I somehow fell into being the paper’s “black bear beat” reporter. (Gardner even bought me a stuffed black bear head to prove it. I’ve since forgotten the name I gave the bear, but it remains pinned to my mini cubicle wall next to the phone and watches me work daily).

I was first introduced to writing about black bears and their yearly trips into our urban areas roughly one month into the job. It was Memorial Day 2006 and as the new reporter (also known as a “cub” reporter, fitting no?) I was slated to work. The editor at the time woke me up that morning via cell phone exclaiming: “There’s a black bear in Bremerton!” I later arrived to find the bear in a trap and wildlife officials explaining the young bear likely came the Illahee Preserve into downtown Bremerton to find food in the various garbage cans laying about.

Since then I quickly realized things are different on this side of the water. (I grew up in a relatively urban area north of Seattle, though we did have coyotes and raccoons  — but the raccoons were so tame even our cats befriended them). I have since reported about a Port Orchard man who was attacked by a black bear in the Banner forest, a Seabeck man harvesting a 570-pound black bear in Seabeck, the hunt for a sow after her cubs were trapped and removed from Bremerton and an overall story about the life of a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sergeant and how he handles human interactions with wildlife. (It’s the humans he worries about more than the wildlife).

Each year we write the same story: It’s spring, bears are starting to come into neighborhoods and they’re hungry. In the last few years the number of bear sightings have been on the rise. The best advice for limiting interactions with wildlife? Don’t leave anything outdoors that they could consider food. We write this story every year, and yet there still seem to be people out there who don’t register the advice applies to them.

My first bear story of the this year was about a bear that was shot by a Bremerton man on Monday. The wildlife officer that investigated the shooting said based on the evidence presented and his interview with the man, his family and neighbors, he was justified in killing the animal. But there’s a thin line between killing an animal because it poses a threat and wrongfully killing it. That’s why wildlife officers are so adamant that people do everything in their power to keep bears from coming around (again that means removing all food sources from outside, including even hummingbird feeders).

He explained while the Bremerton man was justified, a man in Kingston a few weeks ago who started chasing a black bear with a rifle would have faced criminal charges if he’d actually shot the animal. That’s because the animal was running away and not posing a threat to the man. (It’s kind of like the self-defense argument you would use in court…if the bear is attacking you you can argue self-defense if you shoot it; but if the bear sees you and runs away, it’s harder to prove you were defending yourself, especially when you chase after the animal).

Already this spring wildlife officials have removed five bears from Kitsap County. They also trapped three bears in January that were problematic in Poulsbo — an unusual occurrence for our winter months. A total of two bears have been shot and killed by residents, the Bremerton shooting off McKenna Falls Road that happened this week, and one earlier this year in Kingston where a bear wouldn’t leave a chicken coop alone. No wildlife officers have euthanized bears in Kitsap this spring — and they hope they won’t have to.

Sadly that wasn’t the case in a Long Beach Peninsula town last week. According to a press release sent out by fish and wildlife on Tuesday, 10 black bears had to be removed from Oysterville, in Pacific County, after they became so comfortable with humans they didn’t shy away.

Five of the bears — female adults and cubs — were taken to Mount Rainier National Park, but the other five had to be euthanized because they were “so dangerously habituated to people,” according to the release. Meat from the euthanized bears was donated to an area food program.

Here’s what fish and wildlife enforcement Sgt. Dan Chadwick had to say in the release: “I hope we never have to do anything like this again. I’ve never seen such a concentration of bears in such a small area. It was completely unnatural and it was caused by people feeding wild animals.”

Neighbors complained about the high number of bears gathering in the area. When officials investigated they learned one residence was responsible for the problem — the people living there estimated they were spending $4,000 annually on dog food to feed the bears.

Bears relying on humans for food can’t be relocated in the wild because they will associate people with food and could become dangerous if they see humans in the wild. That’s why the five bears were put down.

“We can’t risk human life by releasing a bear that would cause problems for other people,” Chadwick said in the release. “A fed bear is a dead bear. We keep trying to communicate that, to try to prevent situations like this one.”

To show how comfortable the bears were around humans, when a wildlife officer arrived to check out the bears one of the bears crawled into the cab of his pick-up truck.

So when you hear wildlife officials warn about feeding the animals — either intentionally or unintentionally — they’re not only trying to protect humans, but they’re also trying to save the bears’ lives.

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