Likely looking for food in yards, garbage cans
Law enforcement and area wildlife authorities are renewing warnings to secure garbage and take other precautions after multiple sightings of a young black bear in and around the town of Winthrop.
The juvenile cinnamon bear — a black bear with a light-colored coat — is the likely culprit for a number of reports of a bear getting into garbage cans, chicken coops and snooping on porches from the Twin Lakes development to downtown Winthrop to Libby Creek since the beginning of the month, said acting Sergeant Troy McCormick with the Washington state Department of Fish and wildlife.
“We’ve got a lot of bear complaints that have been coming in the past couple weeks,” McCormick said. “For us here in Okanogan, it’s a pretty regular occurrence to have bear issues in the spring when the bears come out of hibernation. They’re hungry and they’ve lost a lot of their fat … and they’re looking for food to put that weight back on.”
On Wednesday (June 9), police officers shot non-lethal bean-bag rounds at the bear after it was spotted in the Horizon Flats area of Winthrop to try to scare it out of the area. The bear climbed up a tree, but eventually left on its own, Winthrop Marshal Doug Johnson said.
While the bear was described as a juvenile, weighing approximately 120 to 140 pounds, it could still be a danger to people, pets and farm animals, especially if it continues to spend time in residential and downtown areas, Johnson said.
On Wednesday morning, Okanogan County Emergency Management sent out a message on its emergency notification system warning people to not approach or try to feed the bear.
“As comical as it is, it’s something we have to address and get it out of town,” Johnson said. “The musculature on that adolescent bear is plenty strong.”
Though there have been reports of a young cinnamon-colored bear causing trouble for several weeks throughout the Twisp and Winthrop area — and the Methow has a healthy population of the species — McCormick said it’s likely to be the same animal causing the disturbances.
On June 1, WDFW got a report of a bear hanging around the Libby Creek area for four days. The next day, June 2, a bear was reported at Sun Mountain Lodge.
“It was coming up on porches,” McCormick said. “There was an incident at Pine Forest, and then (at) Moccasin Lake it was getting into bird feeders and a chicken coop. It seemed fairly unconcerned when people tried to chase it away.”
On June 3, a bear was reported at the Twin Lakes development getting into garbage. Johnson said there was a recent incident at Twin Lakes in which a resident had gone fishing and put the leftover fish parts in the garbage, which attracted the bear. The resident was able to scare the bear away in that case, Johnson said, adding that it had since then been seen on Witte Road and in the town of Winthrop itself.
Residents on West Chewuch Road have also reported seeing the bear, on Tuesday night (June 8) it was seen at a KOA campground and at the Pine Near RV Park, and on Wednesday morning (June 9) it was hanging around a bakery in downtown Winthrop.
On Wednesday, police officers tried to scare the bear away using non-lethal methods including loud noises and bean-bag rounds.
“The first step is to try to make it afraid of people. It’s too young to be afraid of people yet,” Johnson said. “We can’t have a bear roaming around town.”
It’s unclear whether the bear is a male or a female, but judging by its size, McCormick confirmed it’s likely a juvenile. Adult black bears in the county typically don’t get bigger than 350 or 400 pounds, McCormick said, adding that young bears are more likely to get into trouble in populated areas than older animals.
“They’re trying to figure things out on their own,” he said. “Their hunting skills might not be up there, their foraging skills might not be up there.”
Creatures of habit
Bears usually avoid coming into contact with people, McCormick said, and if they haven’t been seeking out food from human sources for long, there’s hope that they could be scared away and won’t become a problem.
But if food is scarce, or if they’ve acquired a habit of seeking food from humans like trash, birdseed or horse feed left outside, that habit can be very difficult to break.
“At this point, based on the number of sightings and the amount of food it’s been getting — every time it gets that food reward it reaffirms to that animal that people are associated with food — this bear is appearing to be quite far along in its habituation,” McCormick said.
Droughts or years with long winters can mean bears need to go farther to forage for food, and cubs can also be taught by their mothers to forage for food from human sources, but it’s unclear how this particular bear got the habit, McCormick said.
“When we have bears that start to get comfortable with people, and if they get any kind of a food reward that’s when we start to see some issues with some individual bears,” he said. “Especially in the spring and the fall, it’s super important that people conduct themselves in a way that limits that food source availability for the bears.”
Bears are attracted to garbage, but also to hummingbird feeders, sunflower seeds, birdseed and horse feed, especially sweet grains, he said.
Residents can get certified bear-proof containers, but they can also avoid leaving trash outside, and instead lock it in an enclosed space, such as a garage. Birds don’t need help finding food during the spring and summer, McCormick said, and feeders should be taken down in bear-populated areas.
The first method to get rid of a bear is “hazing,” or trying to frighten it into leaving on its own. However, that hasn’t been very effective with this bear, leading McCormick to believe it’s become too accustomed to people.
At this point, WDFW hopes the bear gets the hint and moves on, but if not, there are a couple of options going forward.
One is to trap and move the bear to another location. The other is lethal removal.
This bear has been moving around too much to have an opportunity to trap it yet, McCormick said, and noted that darting the bear is more complicated than it sounds.
“There’s a lot that could go wrong,” he said. The bear could fall from a tree and injure itself, get away from officers before it’s immobilized, the dart could miss, or the bear “could run into traffic and cause a collision.”
Relocation is also not always successful. The bear could become a problem wherever it’s placed, or it could come back in a matter of days.
“Moving bears makes us feel good, but it’s not necessarily the right thing for the bear either,” McCormick said.
That leaves lethal removal, the last option. But if a bear is creating a public safety issue by refusing to leave a populated area, that might be the best option.
No one really wants it to get to that point. McCormick noted that bears get into bad habits, but it’s hard to train them back into good ones. It’s easier to train people to keep their garbage locked up, remove their bird feeders, and don’t leave anything out that could attract a large, hungry animal.
“We all like bears and we don’t want to have to lethally remove bears, so we try really hard to get people to not cause these problems,” McCormick said.