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The bear solution: Officers say human behavior needs to change to end unwanted encounters

With trash-raiding bears a common nuisance in Snoqualmie, city, state and Waste Management officials are working together to find solutions. Wildlife enforcement officer Chris Moszeter, left, works with bear dog Savute to keep bears in the woods. Jeff McMahon, District Manager for Waste Management, center, orders bear-proof garbage bins. Police officer Nigel Draveling, right, wants residents to help by promptly reporting encounters. - Seth Truscott/Staff Photo
With trash-raiding bears a common nuisance in Snoqualmie, city, state and Waste Management officials are working together to find solutions. Wildlife enforcement officer Chris Moszeter, left, works with bear dog Savute to keep bears in the woods. Jeff McMahon, District Manager for Waste Management, center, orders bear-proof garbage bins. Police officer Nigel Draveling, right, wants residents to help by promptly reporting encounters.
— image credit: Seth Truscott/Staff Photo

One night last spring, two moms—one a human, the other a bear—came face to face.

Becca Russell of Preston was a new mom, up late tending to her newborn, when she heard a noise in the night.

“Oh, shoot, it’s the bears,” she thought. But it wasn’t one roving, garage-browsing bear, but three: A sow and two cubs. Russell’s annoyance that now more of the hungry creatures were making a haven of her home turned to fear, when she tried to shoo them away, hollering from the safety of her home. Outside her office window, the mama bear rose to her hind legs and huffed in defiance.

Russell backed off, shut the curtains, but returned to see what happened next.

“They just went back to eating my garbage until they were done, and moseyed on,” Russell said.

Russell’s sense of being under siege was reinforced when a bear tore off the door of an outside shed at her home earlier this year. She’s regained control by building a stronger shed, and is keeping her trash in a strong steel container, but wonders at reports of bears wandering local streets.

The Preston resident points to the development east of her home as a catalyst for change for the fast-learning, fast-reproducing black bears.

“You just dropped 4,000 people in their home,” Russell said. “Now they’re interacting with us all the time. They may not be scared anymore.

“It’s a whole new world,” she added.

Bears among us

Russell was among the group of Valley residents who attended a Tuesday, July 17, meeting at the Snoqualmie Fire Station, hosted jointly by the Snoqualmie Police Department, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Waste Management. She was among about two dozen residents who raised their hands when asked whether they’ve encountered bears at home.

The experts say bears are here because of food.

“Most calls usually revolve around a garbage can or the almighty bird feeder,” said Chris Moszeter, local enforcement officer for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Black bears, he said, are big, docile and interested in one thing during their seven-month season of activity: food, and plenty of it.

But Valley bears have learned that they can get a lot more calories from human garbage cans than any other source. They follow their amazingly powerful noses to whatever’s stinkiest and tastiest. So, instead of sucking berries one by one off bushes in the woods, they can devour thousands of calories in one gulp if they can get their paws on a bird feeder. An unsecured trash can, Mozetter said, is their 96-gallon buffet.

While bears in wild lands normally flee at the sight or sound of a person, bears on the Ridge are human-conditioned. They’ve become accustomed and indifferent to people in the area.

Even human conditioned, black bears are generally a very docile species. Even females with cubs will sooner run than fight, said state wildlife biologist Brian Kertson.

But black bears will readily signal their discomfort if you get too close. Warning behaviors include huffing, grinding their teeth, smacking their jaws together, slapping the ground with their paws, and as a final tactic, the bluff charge, a short rush toward you.

Generally, Kertson said, “if you do give them the space, they will back off.”

Bears normally go into a deep sleep between Nov. 15 and April 1.

But certain conditions, such as warmer weather, may rouse them. And the amount of food in the area may mean that some bears never hibernate. One sow bear kept up her rounds on the Ridge until January’s massive ice storm forced her into the den.

Safety awareness

In state history, there have been 10 black bear attacks. Four of those attacks were on hunters who had just shot a bear, Kertson said. Moszeter claims that you’d have a better chance of being crushed by a vending machine falling on you than being attacked by a bear.

If you encounter a bear, stop, and stand tall. Talk to the bear, to remind him that you’re a human being, not a possible prey animal. To avoid challenging him, don’t make a lot of eye contact with the bear, and slowly back away to give the animal as much space as possible. Keep children and pets close, and never turn and run.

“In the animal kingdom, run means chase,” Kertson said. Bears can run surprisingly fast, so “you’re not going to get away.”

If a bear is aggressive, killing livestock or causing property damage, the wildlife department will respond by trapping and removing it.

But trapping bears without eliminating their free garbage buffets doesn’t work, the wildlife officials say.

“That’s basically a cruel form of death,” Moszeter said.

A trapped bear will typically be hauled hundreds of miles away, but once released, will either compete with a local bear and likely lose, or attempt to return to his old range, crossing several freeways in the process.

“They don’t do freeways very well,” Moszeter said.

Meanwhile, back home, “we’ve opened up prime real estate,” Moszeter said. “Now theres a potential of one bear moving in, or several juveniles.

“I could take every bear off the Ridge, and I guarantee you will have even more bears by the following year,” he added. Take garbage out of the equation, “and we’re a lot more successful.”

When a bear is trapped, officers have an important tool to teach them that human neighborhoods are off limits: The hard release. With barking dogs, beanbag shotgun and non-lethal weapon blasts, the bears get a rough dispatch out of the trap.

When Snoqualmie police are involved in a hard release, they pepper the bear’s hindquarters with special paint-loaded non-lethal rounds, fired from what looks like a blue-painted M-16 rifle. Police Officer Nigel Draveling cautions residents not to try bear paint-balling themselves. Besides possibly injuring the bear, such civilian methods usually end up painting neighbors’ cars and houses instead of the bear.

Once trapped, there’s little chance the bear will be trapped again. The animals aren’t stupid, so they’ll avoid traps from then on.

Two bears were recently trapped in the Snoqualmie area. A boar on the Ridge was found to be blind, and was euthanized. A sow captured at Lake Lawrence was given a radio collar and a hard release, and has since reunited with her cubs. She was last seen south of Snoqualmie, working her way back and forth across the highway with her two cubs, but has not returned to the Ridge.

Solving the problem

Within the landscape of Snoqualmie Valley, where wild lands exist side by side with urban, there is a plenty of bear habitat.

“We like our open space, we like our parks,” Kertson said. “Sometimes, having nature out here comes with unforeseen consequences.”

To end unwanted bear encounters, Kertson and Moszeter tell residents to get rid of the free food from unsecured cans and feeders.

Kertson tells pet owners to walk their dogs before dark, as opposed to the evening, to avoid potentially dangerous run-ins with bears. And he urges homeowners to ditch bird feeders until the snow flies. Local birds don’t need any help finding food until winter anyway, he says.

City and Waste Management officials advise residents to manage their waste before they put it outside, by putting food waste down a garbage disposal, or frequently bleaching trash cans to kill odors. One suggestion included freezing food waste scraps before putting them in the bins on pickup day.

“We need to modify our behavior,” Kertson added. “We recognize we’re asking folks to make changes. I would argue that it’s much more inconvenient to lethally remove a bear simply for being a bear.”

In Preston resident Russell’s case, Moszeter wants to determine exactly what is going on in her neighborhood.

If the Preston bears are getting aggressive, it may be a trap situation, but “if the bear is simply getting into garbage, maybe not,” he said.

Russell’s huffing bear sow, Kertson said, was probably as scared as she was.

Until this year, wildlife officials could only ask residents to stow their garbage, not demand it.

“We now have a hammer,” Kertson said.

Effective on June 1, Washington has a new law on the books making it illegal to intentionally or unintentionally feed a bear, cougar or wolf. That means officers can demand that residents change their trash habits and take down their bird feeders—and hit them in the pocketbooks if things don’t change.

“We’re not here to write people tickets,” Moszeter said.  But the department is getting serious about bear nuisances. A first time offender gets a warning. After that, it become a criminal offense, with potential jail time.

“We want people to do the right thing, so that bears stay in the woods,” Moszeter said.

• You can learn more about how to live safely alongside wildlife and discourage unwanted bear visits at http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/.

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