Fire damage affected usual food supply

By Ann McCreary

Habitat damage from wildfires may be contributing to problems with black bears at homes in the lower Methow Valley, according to state wildlife officials.

Washington Department of Fish and Game (WDFW) captured a small male bear last Friday (July 8) in a trap set at a Gold Creek home where he and a larger bear had repeatedly entered a chicken coop in recent weeks to dine on the birds.

A bear trap was set again at the Gold Creek home this week in an effort to catch the second bear. Another trap was set at a Libby Creek residence where two bears have been visiting regularly and disturbing the homeowner.

The bears may be hanging around homes because they are struggling to find adequate food in surrounding areas that were burned in the 2014 Carlton Complex fire, said Jason Day, an enforcement officer with WDFW.

“When the bears first wake up in spring they are looking for anything to get them going, and what they’re really looking for its protein,” Day said.

Easy sources of protein are grubs and insects that bears dig out of rotten stumps, Day said. “But there are no old stumps for the bears to dig up after the fires,” he said.

Bears also eat “lush, herbaceous growth” like wildflowers and grasses to “make do until berries are ready,” Day said. But in many burned areas that food source is also diminished.

The young bear captured last week was “skinny” although not starving, Day said. “The bears up Gold Creek are behind the curve and it’s difficult for them to catch up without bending the rules and getting into chicken coops,” he said.

He said the bear, estimated to be a year-and-a-half old, had entered the enclosed chicken coop by breaking a window, behavior that is unusual because bears are usually wary of entering a four-sided structure.

“He was being extremely resourceful because the chicken coop he was getting into was well maintained and fortified,” Day said.

Day said the bear was “very friendly” while in the cage, which is basically a large culvert pipe with metal screens on the ends for ventilation. The bear would come right up to the screen to sniff at Day, and didn’t seem alarmed even when Day shouted and banged on the screen.

Too friendly

“That’s really concerning when they’re really friendly. When they’re willing to walk up and sniff you they’re willing to take something from you,” he said.

The bear was immobilized, examined, fitted with an ear tag and released far up the Chewuch drainage the same day. Day used a “hard release” approach, shooting the bear with paint balls and firing a shotgun into the air to frighten him and make him want to avoid humans.

Another bear was trapped at the same Gold Creek home on June 21 after the attacks on the chickens began. That bear was “extremely thin,” said WDFW officer Troy McCormick.

“I estimated he was 4, and in very bad shape for this time of year. He should have been fatter. Being in that body condition he may be being outcompeted by other bears or not finding food,” McCormick said. The bear was released in northeast Okanogan County.

Over the ridge in Libby Creek, Ronda Bradeen said two bears — one of them fairly small — came to her home several times last week. The bears were getting into a space under her front deck and had batted around a couple of empty coolers on her property.

Bradeen said she has yelled and stomped on the deck “and they come out from under the deck and go about 10 feet away and stare at me.”

She even fired birdshot into the ground near the bears to try to frighten them. “One ran out of sight and the other ran about 30 feet and stopped and turned around and looked at me, and then walked away,” she said.

McCormick responded to Bradeen’s call about the bears and said the bears “are not overly concerned” about contact with humans.

“It appears someone is feeding them in the area,” McCormick said.

Bradeen said a neighbor told McCormick that he was putting deer food out on his property and had seen bears there eating the food.

McCormick had suggested bringing a handler with hounds onto Bradeen’s property to haze the bears, but the neighbor objected to the dogs possibly crossing his property. WDFW obtains permission from neighbors before taking that approach, McCormick said.

“They have the right to say no,” he said.

Fed is dead

Bradeen said she is carrying bear spray whenever she goes into her yard, but is just as concerned about the bears’ welfare as her own.

“In 40-plus years of owning this property and spending much time hiking and fishing and camping in wilderness areas, I have seen a few bears, and I have never seen bears that are this habituated to humans,” Bradeen sad.

“A fed bear is a dead bear,” she said. “Bears get habituated to people really fast when they are being fed and then are easy picking for hunters. The two that have been under my porch repeatedly … won’t make it two days in hunting season unless they are relocated or hazed to the point that they leave the area on their own.”

Day said he received a report this week of a bear in an orchard between Methow and Pateros. The loss of habitat from the Carlton Complex and Okanogan Complex fires has resulted in more bears seeking food in orchards, and that creates a particular set of problems, Day said.

“After the Carlton fire we have had some tough situations around Pateros where the bears had nothing to eat. At first the farmers were very tolerant. Most of the cherry harvest was over,” Day said.

“Then the tolerance wears away pretty fast when you realize how much money you’re losing. It’s not just what they eat. It’s the damage they do — branches broken off, limbs stripped bare,” Day said. “The question is, how much damage is too much,” he said.

Wildlife officials weren’t able to use dogs to haze the bears out of the orchards because that requires that there be trees in the area so the bears can climb away from the dogs. The fruit trees aren’t big enough for the bears to climb and most of the other trees in the area are burned, Day said.

“If you can’t tree the bear, you end up with a fight,” Day said.

Trapping isn’t always successful during hot weather because bears won’t enter the culvert traps, so in some cases WDFW officers have had only one choice.

“We’ve had to euthanize some bears because of this,” Day said.

Baiting bears is illegal

With the approach of bear hunting season, which begins Aug. 1, state wildlife officials are asking the public to help them find people who might be illegally baiting bears.

“You can’t put food out with the intent of bringing in a bear to hunt it,” said Jason Day, an enforcement officer with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

“Bear baiting is illegal but it still goes on. With hunting season beginning in August, people begin to build their bear baiting sites,” Day said.

People recreating in the woods who spot piles of food such as fish, apples, oats, or containers filled with syrup or other attractants, are asked to contact WDFW and let officials know where the site is located, Day said.

The WDFW website number for reporting violations is 1-877-933-9847.