Study looks at critters’ access to food sources
Got a bear rummaging in your garbage? Home Range Wildlife Research wants to know about it in order to learn more about why bears seek out human sources of food, and help prevent future problems.
Home Range Wildlife Research, a local research organization, is studying how the abundance or scarcity of wild berries — a primary natural food source for black bears — relates to the frequency of bears turning to human sources like trash, compost, orchard fruits and bird feed.
Spring is prime time for hungry bears to be attracted to human food sources. Local homeowners or campers who discover bears foraging around their homes or campgrounds are encouraged to report the incidents at the Home Range webpage, homerange.org.
A brief survey on the website asks for information such as when and where incidents took place, what kinds of food bears were foraging, whether cubs were present, and whether the bears were able to eat anything, said Carmen Vanbianchi, Home Range research director. Incidents that have already occurred this spring can be reported retroactively, she said.
The reports will help Home Range compile data about the frequency about these food-related bear incidents in the Methow Valley, Vanbianchi said.
Looking for berries
Home Range will also be evaluating the crop of natural berries available for bears around the Methow Valley during the summer as part of the ongoing research project. “In partnership with Methow Conservancy, we are using community scientists to collect yearly data on how well wild berry crops do.”
About two dozen volunteers have been trained to survey wild berry crops on U.S. Forest Service land around the Methow Valley. The citizen scientists will be assigned routes along Forest Service roads to collect data several times during the summer on the abundance of natural foods such as chokecherries, serviceberries and elderberries.
“This information will indicate the availability of natural foods. Over the years we will track berry crop success — natural food ability — with yearly numbers of bear incidences and look for patterns,” Vanbianchi said.
“The hypothesis is that in years with low natural food availability, where wild berry crops fail, more bears will be willing to take associated risks of getting close to humans to find food,” she said.
Climate change, increased human development and scarcity of natural food due to weather can all contribute to food-related conflicts with black bears, Vanbianchi said.
“Besides being a great science project it is also intended to bring awareness,” she said. Bear sightings and reports of “problem bears” have increased in the Methow Valley in recent years, Vanbianchi said. “The Methow Valley is in a position to examine and mitigate these factors before human-black bear conflict becomes a widespread problem.”
Every spring, when food-related bear conflicts are most likely to occur after hungry bears emerge from their dens, wildlife organizations work to boost awareness among Methow Valley residents about ways to coexist with bears and minimize conflicts.
A coalition of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Defenders of Wildlife, WasteWise Methow, private partners and the Methow Conservancy launched a successful “Methow Bear Aware” fundraising campaign last year that raised $15,000 to purchase 50 bear-proof trash bins and provide community education about bears.
The bins have been distributed to homes in Mazama, Lost River and Wolf Creek, which are “hot spots” in the valley for bears raiding garbage containers, said Daniel Senner, conservation project manager for the Methow Conservancy.
Although the fundraising program for the trash bins has ended, homeowners in the Methow Valley who are interested in purchasing a bear-proof trash bin can contact WasteWise Methow by emailing email@example.com to put their names on a waiting list for bins when they become available, Senner said.
When bears find food at garbage bins or bird feeders, they will remember the location and return again and again, posing a safety risk to people and becoming “problem bears.” The solution is often lethal removal by wildlife managers.
Bears are reported to be active as usual in the valley this year, Senner said. “I have heard generally that there is a lot of activity this spring,” he said.
Securing trash is one of the most important things people can do to prevent bears from becoming problem bears and having to be killed, Senner said. He recommended three actions that people can take to help protect bears, and their property:
- Keep trash bins inside an enclosed structure like a garage.
- Put trash out only on the morning of trash pickup.
- Take bird feeders down between April and November.
More information about the Methow Conservancy’s Bear Aware program and ways to reduce conflicts with bears is available on the Methow Conservancy website, methowconservancy.org, at the “Events” link.
Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation organization, also has information on coexisting with bears on its website at: defenders.org/living-bear-country.