Residents report unusual damage by foraging animals
Hungry bears have been unusually persistent and destructive in seeking food near homes in the Methow Valley this year, in some cases repeatedly breaking through electric fences to get at beehives.
Living with bears is always a fact of life for Methow Valley residents, but bears this year seem to be “more desperate to eat” and bolder about foraging near homes, said Jason Day, a law enforcement officer with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
“It all started back in May and June and just kept going,” Day said. “Bears that have been a nuisance all summer long are ramping it up … it’s much higher than normal.”
Bears may be more desperate for food this year due to wildfires last summer that destroyed habitat around the Methow Valley, and an unusually sparse crop of wild berries that are a primary food source for bears.
“Bears that had home ranges that include those fires lost foraging areas,” said Scott Fitkin, a WDFW wildlife biologist. “Probably those bears went into hibernation skinnier than usual.” And a colder than normal spring and late frost appears to have reduced the supply of berries in hills and mountains around the valley, he said.
Bear activity has been reported around the valley since spring, but residents in the Twin Lakes area near Winthrop report more incidents involving bears, especially during late summer, than they’ve ever seen.
“I would consider us ‘bear aware.’ We’ve lived harmoniously with them for eight years,” said Derek Van Marter, who lives on Lynx Lane in the Twin Lakes area. His said his family follows guidelines on reducing attractants, including keeping garbage secured and removing bird feeders, and fencing around beehives and gardens.
But this summer, he and other residents in Twin Lakes have found it impossible to prevent determined bears from getting at food sources. “We’ve lived in the valley 20-plus years, and never had any human-bear encounters like this, where there’s so much destruction,” Van Marter said.
Bears and bees
Van Marter has kept a couple of beehives inside a fenced garden area. Last fall, a bear climbed the 6-foot welded wire fence and destroyed one of the hives to get at the larvae inside. Van Marter replaced the hive in the spring and put an electric wire around the top of the garden fence to discourage bears.
That seemed to be working until early September. Then the bear returned, climbed the electrified fence and knocked over another hive in the garden, “just before I was going to harvest it,” Van Marter said.
“It was about a week-long series of the bear coming back,” he said. The bear knocked down parts of the fence, tore down a fence around a chicken coop and tried, unsuccessfully to claw its way into the coop.
Van Marter installed an electrified fence around the chicken coop and a tool shed, but the bear went through it and got into the tool shed, where some old beehive boxes were stored.
Other Twin Lakes residents, including Ryan Fortier, also had beehives destroyed. Fortier had 20 hives and in late August, he discovered some of the hives knocked over.
He grouped the remaining hives into three different areas and surrounded them with electric fencing, but the bear went through the electric fences. “In 20 years of beekeeping, I’ve never seen a more determined bear,” Fortier said. “It was seven days in a row of the bear knocking down fencing.”
After destroying the hives, the bear (or bears) tore into a chicken coop. “It ripped the window frame off one side and climbed inside, and killed 20 chickens in there. We found feathers all over the place,” Fortier said.
There are generally several bears in the Twin Lakes area, site of a former apple orchard, Day said. The bears come to forage for apples in the abandoned orchard.
“Of course there are going to be bears there,” said Day. He said this year there appear to have been a minimum of five or six bears in the Twin Lakes area, including a sow with cubs, two young bears, and a large bear.
Van Marter said he had seen a large black bear, about 250-300 pounds, on numerous occasions in the neighborhood over the past year. He’d encountered it while running or biking on nearby trails. “It was so used to people, it wasn’t afraid. The food scarcity perhaps exacerbated this bear’s attitude this year.”
A few deaths
On Sept. 11, after numerous reports of bear activity in Twin Lakes, Day set a trap on Van Marter’s property and the bear was caught within a couple of days. Van Marter said Day told him the bear would be killed and he had found a family in the valley that would process the bear meat for food.
Two bears have been shot by homeowners this summer in the Twin Lakes area, Day said. One homeowner called WDFW to ask permission to shoot a bear if it returned, and another killed a bear while it was discovered in the act of damaging property, Day said.
Earlier this year Day killed a bear that was behaving aggressively toward people in the Lost River area of Mazama. And a homeowner on Newby Creek killed a bear that walked past him to enter a carport where the garbage can was stored, Day said.
In the past, WDFW has captured and relocated bears that repeatedly visited residences or damaged property, but that practice ended a few years ago because it was rarely successful, Day said. Bears can easily travel long distances and would often find their way back, or they would become a nuisance somewhere else.
“There’s really nowhere I can dump a bear that it doesn’t become someone else’s problem,” Day said.
Knowing that a nuisance bear is likely to be killed deters some Methow Valley residents from calling WDFW to report problems, Day said. “People don’t want to kill bears, they want to live with them. Rarely in the Methow do I get someone saying, ‘Kill it!’”
With so much habitat damaged during last year’s Cedar Creek and Cub Creek fires (which burned more than 125,000 acres), bears were already struggling last fall to find enough food to fatten up before hibernating, said Fitkin, a resident of the Twin Lakes area. “I saw bears near my house early in the season that looked pretty skinny,” he said.
Emerging from hibernation, the bears’ struggles to find food has been exacerbated by this year’s poor wild berry crop, apparently caused by abnormally cold spring weather and late frost.
The crop of serviceberries, among the first to ripen, “was mediocre,” Fitkin said. “More critically, the chokecherry crop seems to have failed entirely, and I’ve never seen that in all the years I’ve been here.” Chokecherries are “a mid-summer food for bears,” Fitkin said.
A new research project initiated this year appears to confirm Fitkin’s observations. Home Range Wildlife Research, a Methow Valley research organization, has been conducting surveys of wild berry crops to determine how natural food abundance is linked to human-bear conflicts.
Volunteers who have been conducting surveys in bear habitat “were reporting few to no berries” on serviceberry bushes, according to preliminary data, said Carmen Vanbianchi, research director for the organization.
The survey will gather data on the abundance of six berries that are important to bears, including serviceberries, currants, elderberries, black hawthorn, red osier dogwood and chokecherries.
Home Range Wildlife Research is also gathering data on food-related incidents involving bears. They are asking anyone in the Methow Valley with a food-related incident to report it on their website at homerange.org. As of late summer, about 35 incidents had been reported, and more are likely this fall as bears seek to pack on calories before hibernating, Vanbianchi said.
Home Range Wildlife Research will compare the data on natural food availability and bear-human incidents to determine their interrelationship and to help Methow Valley residents better coexist with bears, Vanbianchi said.
She said studies done elsewhere have shown that in years when wild berry crops fail, shortages of these natural foods can increase a bear’s willingness to navigate risks associated with humans, such as enduring shocks from electric fencing, in order to get to sources of food such as trash, beehives and orchard trees.
“Most bears perceive us (humans) as a threat. For a lot of bears, they’ve got to be pretty hard up to make that cost benefit worth it,” Vanbianchi said.
Once bears have discovered human food sources like beehives or garbage, it can be difficult to discourage bears, as residents of Twin Lakes discovered. “Is there a way to fortify those beehives and keep them safe? Short of a Jurassic Park type of fence, once bears decide they want it, they’ll get it,” Day said.
He has advised some beekeepers to move their hives as far away as possible. “Send them down valley. Once a bear gets 30 pounds of honey, it’s going to be hard to convince him not to come back.”
“Bears are what we call single trial learners,” which means if they succeed once, they will keep coming back until whatever attracted them disappears, Fitkin said. If a bear is repeatedly successful, it can become conditioned to seeking food around humans. The outcome is often a dead bear.
Unfortunately, with the shortage of natural food this summer, some bears may again go into hibernation inadequately nourished this fall and be desperate for food in the spring, Fitkin said. “We could be looking at a bit of a repeat performance next year.”
As the population of the Methow Valley grows and more people move into bear habitat, residents need to find ways reduce conflict with bears and other wildlife, Fitkin said.
“This valley is like an in-holding in the national forest. If you’re going to move to an area like this ostensibly because you like the wildlife and wild character of the land, you’ve got to live with the wildlife,” Fitkin said.
He said information on reducing conflict with bears can be found on the WDFW website, wdfw.wa.gov.
Fortier estimates the damage by bears to his beehives, fences, chickens and trees this year totals about $10,000. “It seems like these bears are very hungry or more desperate or a lot more aggressive than in the past,” he said.
“We’re trying to take a longer term view of it,” Fortier said. “We did move here to be in a beautiful natural area. We don’t feel confident that this is the end of wildlife interactions for a while.”
Van Marter said that after the destruction caused by bears in Twin Lakes this year, and the resulting deaths of bears, he plans to put his beekeeping hobby on hold for a while.
“Frankly it’s just a sad story. We live in bear country and we try to do our part not to entice them to come around,” Van Marter said.
“We all want our little hobbies and gardens too,” he said. “I’ve made the decision I’m going to wait a couple of years and make sure we don’t have any bear activity. I don’t want to cause any more harm.”