Bear conflicts spike in spring as hibernation ends

YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLICMay 10, 2014 

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Three weeks ago, a black bear’s mauling of a woman in her own garage made headlines around the world. That the attack took place in a fashionable suburb of Orlando, Fla., fueled the fascination with the story. So did the fact that as many as four other bears were there.

Lurid mental images of a bear attack notwithstanding, though, nothing about what happened is particularly surprising, for two primary reasons.

This is the time of year when black bears emerge from their dens, bent upon regaining the third of their body weight lost during hibernation.

The open garage door was a de facto invitation to the garbage cans within — precisely what the bears were perusing.

“It’s almost always a food-related situation,” said Lorna Smith, executive director of Port Townsend-based Western Wildlife Outreach. “Bears and people live together, and the majority of the time people are not aware (of the bears’ presence). Really, the only thing that brings bears into contact with humans is when they are looking for food.”

A half-million black bears inhabit North America, including 40 U.S. states and about 60 percent of Washington, all but the arid Columbia Basin.

And even if Washington’s black bears number closer to 15,000, as many wildlife biologists believe, than the official estimate of 25,000, that’s still enough to warrant precaution.

Especially for those people living in the wooded fringes of urban areas, like so many of the communities in western Yakima and Kittitas counties and much of Klickitat County.

’Tis the season

Bear conflicts spike in spring and late fall, when they’re coming out of or preparing to go into hibernation.

“When they come out of the dens, they’ve lost up to 40 percent of their body weight and they’re looking to pack on some body weight before breeding season starts in June,” said Rich Beausoleil, bear and cougar specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There’s not a lot out there yet in terms of their normal food sources, so if there’s an attractant, they’re going to take advantage of it.”

Easy prey can include the obvious — such as trash cans put out the night before pickup, rather than the morning of — and the not-so-obvious. A pet’s food bowl left on a back porch, for example, and even the bird feeder you put out to attract finches and wrens.

“It’s not that the bear population is out of control. They’re close to people because we give them a reason to be, and that’s high-calorie food,” Beausoleil said.

“A bear needs about 3,000 calories a day to survive, and one full bird feeder, average size, is about 750 calories. Think about that: If you’re a bear, you could spend the entire day picking berries and trying to eat bugs and grubs and balsam root and all these other things — or you could hit-and-run on the bird feeders in a few backyards and you’ve just eaten enough to live another day.”

Alan Bauer, a hiking guidebook photographer and author who lives in a thickly forested area of the Snoqualmie Valley, has gone out of his way to educate his neighbors about co-existing with bears.

He takes his bird feeders in at night, and reminds his neighbors to “quit putting the garbage out on Tuesday night for a Wednesday morning pickup.

“A lot of people think (bears) are terrible things to have around. But they don’t realize they’re the problem, not the bears,” he said.

Most attackers male

The vast majority of those encounters are benign; unless they’ve come to associate humans as careless providers of easy meals, black bears typically choose to avoid humans and, more often than not, will run away.

The very rare predatory male bear, though, will not.

About a third of all fatal attacks by wild black bears in North America have occurred in the months of May or June. In the vast majority of the cases the attacking bear was a lone predatory male — and only very rarely, perhaps contrary to popular belief, a mother defending cubs.

Wildlife experts advise people to fight back aggressively against any attacking black bear, using fists, rocks, sticks or whatever is available. Statistics indicate predatory bears look for smaller, potentially weaker prey; almost two-thirds of all victims of fatal black bear attacks since 1997 are female.

Young victims

Almost a third of all victims are 12 years old or younger.

That was the case on May 16, 1974, when 4-year-old Victoria Valdez became the only Washington resident ever killed by a non-captive black bear.

That day, little Vicky was playing alongside a creek about 200 yards from the family home near the northern Klickitat County community of Glenwood.

Bill and Alta Valdez, who had moved the family to Glenwood from Toppenish only a few weeks earlier, didn’t know about the bears.

“We thought it would be a good place to raise our kids,” recalled Alta Valdez. “We just didn’t know (about the bears in the area). If only our neighbors had told us ... we were just so new here. We probably should have never let them go out in the pasture, but it was just open.”

When Vicky’s 6-year-old brother, Marcus, told his parents he didn’t know where she was, Bill Valdez went out to search for her and, upon finding torn and blood-stained bits of her clothing, ran back to the house to get a rifle. By the time he found his daughter, she was already dead, and he shot and killed the bear that killed her.

The Valdez family still lives in Glenwood, less than a mile from their 1974 home, and Alta Valdez said they love the Glenwood community. But things changed forever for their other seven biological children, as well as the about 20 foster-care kids they’ve raised and their many grandchildren.

“I really, really try to be careful with the children,” Alta Valdez said. “Even with our grandchildren now, we don’t even let them go to the barn by themselves, or without an adult.”

She said they haven’t seen a bear on their property since that terrible day in 1974. But she knows they’re out there.

Especially right now.

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