Living with the Bears: combating human-bear conflict with ‘Bear Smart-WA’

[Article by contributing writer Melissa Grant: North Bend resident and owner of Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs]

Mountain Lions, Elk and bears! Oh, my! You didn’t think I’d leave our bear friends out did you?

I recently spoke to Nadine Drisseq the founder and biologist for Bear Smart, WA about our bear population; what her group does to help educate us; and how to reduce human-bear conflicts in the area.

Rich Beausoleil, Bear and Cougar Specialist for the WDFW, who is studying King County black bears, notes we have approximately 750-800 bears in King County. With home ranges that can stretch from Carnation to Renton, bears follow their sophisticated olfactory senses for food and can easily locate a patch of berries or roadkill from several miles away.

Bear Facts

According to Nadine, bears are not uniform in distribution. They tend to stick to “riparian habitat, marshland as well as mountain forests, thickets, ravines, but within grazing distance of grassy meadows.” Bears most often involved in human-bear conflicts tend to stay in the greenbelts surrounding our communities, spending a lot of time in trees or at the base of trees where they make “daybeds” in which to sleep in when not foraging. On hot summer days they look for marshes and places where they can bathe in solitude.

Despite their formidable appearance, black bears are defensive animals who prefer to be left alone. Unlike the overtly offensive brown bear, black bears have evolved defensive behavior like living in woodland areas and climbing trees. The western Washington lowlands offer a very rich bear habitat, offering bear favorite foods and favorite den areas like ravines, hillsides and thick forests. Dead trees are particularly valuable to all wildlife, with bears using them to den in the winter. And surprisingly dens are much smaller than you would think, usually just the size of the bear and not much more.

In the fall bears go through a period of “hyperphagia” (excessive hunger and thirst) when they replenish their fat reserves. They then slow down, get drowsy for a few weeks and then eat leaves and woody matter to form a plug and go into hibernation. Their respiration drops to a breath or two a minute, but their body temperature and heartbeat does not drop as low as traditional hibernators. In our area bears hibernate around the end of November to mid-December, with pregnant females being the first to den. In March, males are the first  to emerge and females last, with cubs which are born in the same week of late January early February.

In the spring, reproduction occurs and bears lose their awareness of danger as they are trying to find a mate. Hormones over-ride the bear’s sense of risk. This is when Bear Smart Biologist Nadine says a noticeable uptick in bear sightings and called-in incidents and incidents occur. Mostly polyamorous, bears will seek out more than one mate and spend hours to several weeks mating, playing, foraging and spending time together.

Bears physiology dictates that once the female’s egg is fertilized, the blastocyst does not immediately implant into the uterine lining as do in all other mammals. Whether or not the blastocyst(s) implant is dependent on the mother’s ability to take enough calories by the fall. If she doesn’t, the blastocyst will reabsorb leaving her cub-less. The Snoqualmie Valley is pretty plentiful in berries and fruit crops. so our bears usually have 1-2 cubs a year.

It is a misnomer to say bears are going to bed early if the weather turns cold sooner in the fall according to Nadine. Bears stay awake in response to food availability, not temperature. However, if the weather is good enough for spring foods to be available, such as the Western Skunk Cabbage that unplugs the leaf-plug in the digestive tract, then the bears will wake in response to that food being available.

Origins 

In 2015, Nadine started her group “Bear Smart King County” in response to the overwhelming number of bear sightings from Issaquah to North Bend. Staring in the Issaquah Highlands, the group worked very hard with the community to bring bear awareness.  After going door to door on garage days, posting on social media and working with the HOA’s to disseminate Bear Smart education, the Highlands now has a relatively owner rate of Bear-Human conflict. But it was hard work.

By 2016 the human bear conflict was moving farther north so Nadine changed the name to “Bear Smart WA.” She notes,

 “As we keep building in prime bear habitat, we displace the bears’ range and replace their food with our housing. Suddenly, the bear finds herself with houses and garbage nearby, and the urge to eat human garbage is irresistible to them. The unprecedented numbers of human expansion into small rural or satellite communities east of the freeways is the leading cause of the sky-rocketing rates of bear-human conflict”

Her plan is to keep expanding throughout the state wherever needed. Education is key, she says, and through dissemination of bear education and bear awareness to communities prone to human-bear conflict via the internet (Facebook, Next Door, Forums), they have a very high success rate.

So what can we do to help prevent bear-human conflicts in our day-to-day lives?

  • Store garbage in the garage until the morning of pick-up if you can. Those of us who have no storage or whose schedules do not provide for this can rent or buy bear-proof garbage cans. Even a simple bungee cord can help keep a can closed and deter a bear.
  • Take down bird feeders between April and December. Plant flowers to attract Hummingbirds instead of putting out nectar. Put out a bird bath instead of a feeder. Hang a suet feeder with nesting material (no hair with flea treatment on it please)
  • Put electric fencing around bee-hives and chicken coops.
  • Drain the fat from BBQ’s and clean the BBQ after each use
  • Pick fruit trees as it ripens in the fall. Don’t let it fall on the ground around the tree. A bear will not just eat your fruit but will come check out your garbage, your house and your neighbor’s house.
  • Drive slowly at dusk and dawn to give animals time to clear roads when crossing

Says Nadine, “Food is such potent source for them (bears), that they can easily be manipulated and habituated with it.”

This means, that if a human gives a bear some food, he or she is agreeing to continue to feed it – at least in the bear’s mind. Since humans can understand the bear, it is our responsibility to not put the bear in harm’s way by negligently supplying food to it through garbage or bird feeders.

Many bears are killed through such a misunderstanding, and through human ignorance. The bears who eat garbage live very short lives, as the garbage itself damages their digestive system. Plastic is often found in the guts of dead bears and balloons are very commonly found in cubs that are starving to death. Bears can also grow very large due to having more calories, but despite their size and apparent success, they live short lives and do not die well.

Bears that fall victim to human-bear conflicts are only given several chances by wildlife authorities. The “problem bears” that are called in by well-meaning residents are trapped and tagged. If they get called in again, they frequently lose their lives or are relocated. Relocation is often a death sentence for bears. Being dropped in another bears territory is dangerous. Or some bears simply find their way back to their previous range within a few weeks.Wildlife officers care deeply for the bears, it is residents who often negligently and indirectly cause the harm and the deaths.

Sammamish recently implemented bear-proof containers and Bear Smart hopes that other towns will follow suit soon. WDFW officers and the Snoqualmie Police department agree there is a problem with attractants and human bear conflict. Tell your council that bear-human conflict is real and important.

Nadine said, “Snoqualmie Council has implemented a ‘no trash the night before’ ordinance, but we need more than that. We need, ‘No storage of cans outside, no bird feeders March-November.’”

People need to realize that it’s up to US to prevent interactions with bears

If you’d like to educate and spread awareness about bears – as well as learn skills such as tracking bears and wildlife, educating residents through local online forums and speaking in schools or publicly to groups – please contact Bear Smart, WA at bearsmartwa@gmail.com or call 530-628-7787.  They respond to bear incidents the same day, if possible within minutes. You can find out more on their Facebook page Bear smart WA.

Photo: Bear Smart WA Facebook page.

 

Bear cubs walking the tight rope of a fence top on Carmichael Ave in Snoqualmie

Comments

  1. Julie Porter says

    I love our bears

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