New device will help WDFW deal with ‘problem’ animals
By Ann McCreary
The contraption consists of a big metal culvert pipe, 7 feet long and 4 feet in diameter, with a solid metal door on one end and metal mesh on the other, mounted on a low trailer.
It’s a new bear trap, and for local Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) enforcement officers, getting the trap this month is like Christmas in February.
And like a Christmas present, the bear trap is a gift to the agency, provided through a donation by a Methow Valley resident who has a strong interest in protecting wildlife.
“This is the stuff that’s fun!” exclaimed Sgt. Dan Christensen, WDFW police supervisor for Okanogan County, as he described the features of the new trap, which he brought to TwispWorks Monday.
“It’s like a giant have-a-heart trap on wheels, designed to withstand the strength of a bear,” Christensen said.
Joining Christensen was Tom Bihn, who gave a donation to WDFW last year to provide the new trap.
Bihn, who has a home in Mazama, said he was inspired to make the gift after attending an Eyes in the Woods presentation at the North Cascades Basecamp last year. Eyes in the Woods is a nonprofit organization that collaborates with WDFW, Conservation Northwest, and other organizations to reduce poaching and protect wildlife and natural resources.
Christensen and WDFW enforcement officer Cal Treser spoke at the Eyes In the Woods presentation, and when they were finished Bihn approached them and asked if they needed anything to help them with their work.
Christensen had an immediate answer — a new bear trap to replace one constructed more than 30 years ago.
“I’ve always had a spot in my heart for bears. I grew up hiking in Yosemite and the High Sierra, and enjoyed seeing lots of bears. On the Olympic Peninsula as well — lots of bears,” Bihn said.
“I live full-time now in the Methow and have seen bears several times, and the idea of doing something for the bears in my own neighborhood was very appealing,” he said.
“I ran the idea past my business partner, Darcy Gray, and she agreed it seemed like a great and very direct way to benefit local wildlife,” Bihn said.
The donation came from two businesses operated by Bihn and Gray — Tom Bihn, which makes backpacks, totes and other types of bags, and Skookum Dog, which makes dog beds and other dog gear.
The new trap cost about $6,500, and the donation supported most of that cost, Christensen said. The trap was manufactured at a WDFW shop that builds fish screens.
“It’s more humane than our other traps,” Christensen said. It’s bigger, giving the captive bear more room, and has lots of holes to provide ventilation, he said. Older traps have portions made of wire mesh that bears could sometimes get their claws or teeth into as they tried to escape, resulting in injuries.
Older traps are mounted on trailers with no suspension, so the bears experienced a rough ride to their release destination; the new trailer has suspension to make transport easier on the animal, Christensen said.
The traps are most often used to capture “problem” bears that have developed a habit of looking for food in trash cans, cars, garages, and other places too close to humans.
The real problem, Christensen and Treser are quick to say, is usually human behavior. People put trash in places or containers that are not bear-proof, and leave food inside cars. The bears are attracted by the odors and can rip open a trash container, break through a garage door, or a tear up a car’s sunroof with little effort. That’s when WDFW gets reports about nuisance bears.
In some cases, people entice bears with food deliberately. “Some people think it’s fun to feed the bear, until the bear creates a problem,” Christensen. “I’ve known people who buy 50-pound bags of dog food to feed the bears.”
He even knew of one man who fed bears bread until they became so accustomed to him that the bears would take a slice of bread with their mouths that the man held in his teeth.
The bear trap is set in the area frequented by the bear, and baited with food that hangs from a mesh bag well inside the pipe. Treser said he likes a concoction of bacon fat, peanut butter and marshmallows. He distributes the marshmallows “like Hansel and Gretel” in a trail leading into the trap, as a “visual aid.”
The bear must step up into the pipe to reach the bait at the far end, and when the bear pulls on the bait bag, it trips the metal door shut behind it. The captured bears are immobilized and given ear tags before they are released away from civilization.
Treser said he’s captured bears in many parts of the Methow Valley, including neighborhoods in Edelweiss and Alta Lake. The bears are taken about 30 miles away, to more remote areas like Rainy Pass, he said.
The Methow Valley community tends to be generally more accepting and protective of bears and wildlife than some other parts of Okanogan County, where the approach to problem bears tends to be “shoot, shovel and shut up,” Christensen said.
“This trap is a tool for us to get the bear out of the situation … to get between the shoot, shovel and shut up,” he said.
Jay Kehne, an Okanogan resident and staff member of Conservation Northwest, said the gift of a new trap to WDFW “is a really cool result” of the Eyes in the Woods programs supported by his organization in an effort to protect wildlife.
The gift is a boost to the morale of WDFW enforcement officers, Christensen said. “It rejuvenates me to know that there are people out there who support what we do. All our guys are really excited.”
Christensen said the trap is a “great education tool” for the public, because it generates interest and gives him a chance to educate people about co-existing with bears. Demonstrating his point, two citizens approached to ask what the trap was for and whether there was an animal inside while the trap was parked on its trailer at TwispWorks.
WDFW captures an average of five to 10 bears a year in Okanogan County, although some years it’s been as many as 20, Treser said.
Bears tend to get active by May, after they’ve come out of hibernation, Christensen said.
“We’re already seeing some bears coming out of hibernation,” he said. “It was a mild bear year last year. My gut tells me it will be a big year this year.”