Drought, fires cause increase in bear complaints

Posted: Wednesday, October 03, 2001

BRIDGEPORT, Wash. (AP) -- ''There's an old saying,'' Rick Desautel said as he threw dozens of old ham sandwiches into a live bear trap. ''If a leaf drops in the forest, an eagle can see it falling, a coyote can hear it falling, and a bear can smell it falling.''

An animal damage control specialist for the Colville Confederated Tribes, Desautel was hoping the smell of the old sandwiches left over from a fire camp would entice a problem black bear into the trap near Bridgeport recently.

Since spring, he's been called to deal with problem bears 75 times, and the complaints are picking up, particularly near the thousands of acres burned by wildfires on the Colville Indian Reservation in August.

The black bears are getting into garbage cans, greenhouses, beehives, outdoor freezers and fruit trees, he said.

This bear chewed on some plastic pipe to get at water, damaging a farmer's irrigation system.

Desautel hopes to relocate it before harvest in nearby orchards and the bear starts pulling branches off the trees to get fruit.

Wildlife biologists fear this summer's wildfires and drought will cause a repeat of 1998, when poor berry crops sent black bears seeking food into cities and towns throughout North Central Washington.

Mother bears abandoned their cubs, leaving them to fend for themselves. Some bears never went into hibernation, because they never got fat enough to make it through the winter.

Capt. Dick Smith, who heads Wildlife's enforcement division in Ephrata, said there have been 23 bear complaints in Okanogan County so far this year, compared with only nine last year.

He said an increase in bear population may help account for the rise, as older males push younger bears out of their territory, sending them to the valley floor.

Complaints remain low in Chelan County, he said, but that could change.

''Because of the Icicle and Chelan fire, I would anticipate an increase in both cougar and bear complaints starting with the first snowfall,'' he said.

Wildlife biologist Tom McCall said the berry crop in Chelan County is surprisingly good, considering the drought, and bears are also feeding on a record return of salmon.

Complaints are up in Okanogan County, said Wildlife Sgt. Jim Brown, but it's not dramatic in areas outside the reservation.

''We're averaging a bear complaint every two days for the last five or six weeks,'' he said.

Most have been in the Methow Valley and northern Okanogan County, and some have been spotted close to Omak, Okanogan and Winthrop.

Wildlife biologist Scott Fitkin said the wild berry crop is good, but spotty in some places.

He said people in the Methow Valley are seeing more bears because they're coming close to homes along rivers to feed on salmon carcasses.

East of the Okanogan River, where it's even drier, the berry crop was fairly good, but they quickly shriveled up, said Colville Tribes Fish and Wildlife Director Joe Peone.

It's one of the worst years for bear complaints in years, he said. ''I think it's really increased due to displacement by the fires.''

Desautel said five bears on the reservation had to be shot because of fire injuries. He shot two.

''One of them was pitiful,'' he says. ''He was walking on his elbows and knees because his feet were too burned. I put him out of his misery.''

Vehicles have hit seven bears on Highway 97 and Highway 155, all during the course of the fires, he said.

He's already lived-trapped and relocated about 25 bears, and he expects it to get worse before it gets better, since late September and early October are usually his busiest months.

Wildlife agents say it's not easy to deter a bear that's gotten used to feeding on garbage.

''Once a garbage bear, always a garbage bear,'' said Brown. ''We can't relocate garbage bears because they're going to do it anywhere you send them.''

Now that it's bear hunting season, several of the problem bears have been successfully harvested, Brown said.

Residents can prevent the problem, he said.

Particularly in the fall, people should not leave pet food outside, stop composting, pick all fruit that's close to a house as soon as it's ripe, and not take their garbage out until pickup day.

Desautel said bears are opportunists.

They're not picky eaters, and this time of year, they're eating day and night, trying to put on the winter fat reserve needed to sustain them through their winter nap. Desautel said he relocated a bear this year that had only one ear from Camp Progress, moving him 60 miles to the east.

Two days later, he got a call that the bear was back. He said he gives them two chances to correct their ways.

''The third time, they get a one-way ticket out of here.''

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