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Growing bear-human contact in mountain area sparks need for knowledge, safe practices

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: OREGON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE - Oregon's black bear population is around 30,000, with a majority of that population in the northwestern region of the state.  To many, their closest encounter with bears being a nuisance is watching the animated characters Yogi and Boo Boo pilfer picnic baskets on TV. But for the residents of the Mount Hood communities, damage and annoyances caused by bears is no laughing matter.

"In general, we have a lot of bear-related damage and nuisance issues on the Highway 26 corridor between Sandy and Government Camp," said Kurt Licence, assistant district wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Licence noted that there is a definite "upward trend" in bear-related issues lately because as the bear population has grown along with the human population, making it hard for ODFW to keep everyone informed on how best to detract their furry neighbors.

"(Unfortunately) we often end up being more reactionary than proactive," he said, adding this is greatly because of the close proximity between bear and humans. "We're seeing the overlap of those two different populations and the conflict."

Regional challenge

Statewide, the black bear population is now around 30,000, and a majority of that inhabits the northwestern region.

Licence partially attributes this regional concentration to the tourist nature of the Mount Hood area. The mountain is home to thousands of out-of-town visitors every year, many of whom, Licence said, don't have the same mentality as those who spend time or reside in bear country.

The biggest attractants for bears are unattended or unconcealed trash and bird and animal feeders.

"Bears have an excellent sense of smell," Licence noted. "A lot of the issues we have are trash. Black bears with their keen sense of smell, are particularly susceptible to the draw of an uncleaned barbecue grill, an unlocked Dumpster, a dangling bird feeder, or the half-eaten bowl of pet food on the back porch."

The best way for people to have a harmonious coexistence with the creatures is to batten down the hatches in terms of trash.

If you're visiting, the rule of "take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints" very well applies. If you packed it in, pack it out and dispose of it securely. If you live in the area, be mindful of how accessible your trash bins and other de facto bear lures are.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: OREGON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE - Bird feeders and improperly secured trash bins can be attractants for bears. "Securing (trash cans) is as easy as having a can with a locking lid," Licence explained. "In bear country, you also shouldn't set garbage out a night before," Licence noted. "I think that people waiting would save a lot of damage in the long run."

Licence also explained the danger of overfeeding your neighborhood squirrels and birds as the abundance of food will bring bears to your yard. You should reduce amounts you put out for birds and other wildlife during the spring, summer and fall months when bears are roaming the area.

Also make sure to harvest fruit trees or vegetable gardens regularly and secure composting bins or areas.

In harmony, with distance

It's rare, but bears have been known to leave the safety of the forest and wander into urban settings, such as Gresham and other parts of East Multnomah County.

Even more so in these cases, wayward bears tend to habituate or "lose their natural fear of humans," which can prove problematic — for residents, ODFW personnel and the bears themselves.

The most recent example in Gresham unfortunately led to the death in May of a black bear that found itself wandering the streets near Kirk Park, 1087 N.E. 188th Ave. With few options available, including the lack of a tranquilizer gun, and long response times from the Oregon State Police and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Gresham police officers shot and killed the bear. 

If the creature had remained on the edges of town, a different response could have resulted.

"When a bear is seen in town multiple times, that is not a good sign," said Michelle Dennehy, ODFW wildlife communications coordinator. "This doesn't happen often, and if you want to help bears, keep your food sources secure and don't feed them."

"Sadly, because bears habituated to human food sources are known to repeat these behaviors, they cannot be relocated and must often be euthanized to protect public safety," Licence added.

Whether in the woods or in town, if you encounter a bear, do not feed it. If you come face to face with a bear, stand your ground, don't run and make yourself as big as possible.

"The only time we've really had injuries to humans regarding bears," Licence said, "the people directly fed the bears."

For more information about how to live with black bears, visit www.dfw.state.or.us/wildlife/living_with/black_bears.asp.

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