Large black bear’s food raids earn a transfer back to the woods
By Ann McCreary
A large black bear that was scavenging for food in garages and dumpsters near Mazama last week gained the dubious distinction of being the first bear captured and released in Okanogan County this year.
The bear had made a number of nighttime raids in the area, breaking into a dumpster, some chicken feed containers, and a garage in the Early Winters area, said Sgt. Dan Christensen, Okanogan County supervisor for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) police.
In the garage, the bear broke open a chest freezer and “gorged on dozens of pounds of frozen elk burger,” Christensen said.
Efforts were made to secure areas where food or garbage was kept after the bear’s first visits, but it appeared likely the bear would return.
The bear had broken into a garage at the old U.S. Forest Service Pasayten ranger station, and “the historic construction … did not look like it was going to stop another nighttime visit,” Christensen said.
“As the attractants were removed, he was getting more bold about finding something to eat,” said WDFW Officer Jason Day. “The next thing on the list was peoples’ pet chickens.”
Day set up a culvert trap, baited with sardines, marshmallows, peanut butter and other assorted treats, near an occupied chicken coop, with the hope of catching the bear before it destroyed the coop or the garage.
The bear was caught an hour after dark on May 4, during a spring thunderstorm.
The next morning, Day darted the bear with an immobilizing drug in order to put in an ear tag and check his health. But the big bear, which Day estimated to be about 250 pounds, proved tougher than usual to immobilize, and Day administered a bit more of the drug.
“It took him a super long time to go down,” Day said. “I put his ear tag in and his eyes were still moving around,” he said.
Then, it took the bruin a long time to become alert again, Day said. Ideally, immobilized bears should be almost back to normal during transport to their release site, to ensure that they can blink their eyes to keep them moist and protected, and to prevent them from rolling around inside the trap, Day said.
The bear was still acting groggy when Day and another WDFW officer, Nicholas Fosse, began the drive up the West Chewuch Road to Thirtymile for the release.
“He was still a pretty sleepy guy” when they arrived, Day said. “You don’t want to release a guy who is too groggy. There’s the off-chance he’ll run into another bear, and you don’t want him to get bushwhacked by another bear.”
The bear seemed content to remain in the trap when they arrived at the release site.
“We pulled the door open and he just sort of sat there, enjoying the fresh air,” Day said.
The bear was eventually persuaded to leave the culvert trap after Day pushed at him with a log. He climbed out of the trap, then sat down on his haunches for a while, ignoring the shouts from the officers, and the bird shot that they were firing over his head to drive him away.
Finally the bear ambled off, and appeared to be doing fine, Day said.
“By the time he was down to the river he was climbing over logs. Once he got up and moving, the wooziness had worn off.”
Day said he wasn’t sure why it took the bear so long to perk up. “My best guess is that it’s because he just woke up from hibernation.”
The bear was larger than most, Day said. By fall, after stocking up for hibernation, the bear could have weighed around 300 pounds, he said.
Christensen advised people living in bear country – like the Methow Valley – to be aware that bears emerging from their winter dens are hungry, and hunting for easy meals.
“With spring come our bears from hibernation and they are looking for some quick calories to bring their weight back up after a long winter,” said Christensen.
Black bears, with an estimated population of 25,000 statewide, are the most common source of potentially dangerous conflicts, and complaints to WDFW are increasing, said Christensen.
The most frequent reasons for conflicts are trash, birdseed and pet food, he said. Eliminating those attractants can reduce conflicts, he said.
“We live in a beautiful county and living with wildlife is part of what makes this area so great,” Christensen said.
“People sometimes forget that we share this space and we all have to understand that we have our part to reduce the attractants with common sense approaches.”
For information on living with bears, visit the WDFW website at wdfw.wa.gov/living/bears.html.