Bears and more bears, yes, or no?

Part 2: What should residents expect and do?

Mom and cub cooling off in the Wenatchee River near Peshastin. Photo by Anna A.

There is some evidence that local natural food scarcity may have been more of an issue this year than others. Two local biologists up the Chumstick, Don Youkey and Lisa Foster, noticed snow melted later, continued to fall later, and unforgiving frost continued to form later into the spring. Brit Thurlow, an herbalist who has lived near Eagle Creek Road for six seasons, collected corroborating data: “I track every year. I have a journal for planting and foraging for both my garden and wild foraging. And everything was about two weeks later this year.” She witnessed fruiting branches knocked over by snowstorms and blossoming reduced by late frost. “We had this kind of sunnier 70–75-degree days, but then it would drop down really low at night.” As bears struggled to find natural food sources, it may have increased the incidence of looking elsewhere and wandering closer to town.

Still, it is not clear to what extent bear activity has increased overall this year rather than increased in more visible areas; nor is it clear to what extent this year’s change may be driven by natural environmental causes rather than changes in the availability of access to junk foods in town. Officer Eric Boyd, who responds to local calls to the WDFW, has not noticed a specific increase this year, but says depending on the year, “different areas of town tend to be more active or less active.”

“There are neighborhoods I went to probably a dozen or more times last year that I haven’t gotten any calls [from this year]… This year, there are neighborhoods where maybe I didn’t have many calls last year [now] I’ve had a bunch.” Boyd identified Alpensee Strasse as a neighborhood with more calls in 2021. This is where Diane Wells saw two bears climb onto her deck last year but has seen no bears this year. Along the same street, one neighbor reported noticing more bears this year, and another reported no difference. Thurlow and Ludwick both live near Eagle Creek Road, and the former noticed a bit more bear presence, while Ludwick noted no difference. Experience alters perception. To gain a broader perspective, Becky Elder, WDFW media representative, has requested data that may reveal whether bear-related calls in Leavenworth have objectively changed. Personally, she has noticed a general trend of increased reports since around 2014, which she suspects may be related to the adoption of video doorbells (Ring released its first video doorbell in 2014, now almost 1 in 5 households have video doorbells). “We didn’t really have the same level of pictures and cameras and all the technologies that have given us that,” says Elder. Perhaps a small increase in real bear activity may be perceived as larger as a result of the ability to capture and share photos and videos in ways we have not been able to before. Perception alters experience.

Elder and WDFW do not want citizens to stop reporting, however. Elder, Boyd, and Beausoleil, all emphasized their collective goal of protecting public safety. “I would not suggest a reader not give us a call,” says Elder. WDFW officers work through a series of response options, and lethal removal is always only the last resort. First, calls are logged. Calls provide data to help officials assess the level of threat an animal may pose. If the risk is low but seems to be growing — for example, the same bear is seen once or twice rummaging through garbage — the next response option is a prevention-oriented site visit. Officers will assess what is attracting the bear (almost always a food attractant, according to Beausoleil), then do their best to educate residents and businesses nearby on how to reduce attraction. If the bear acts in a way that signals increased risk and reduced fear of humans — for example, not running from or even moving toward human shouting — the greater the likelihood WDFW will escalate their response and set a trap to relocate or lethally remove the bear. Relocation is more likely to occur with younger cubs, as adults have more likely developed stronger human habituation (Elder and Boyd recounted a bear relocated from the Lake Wenatchee area to 50 miles north of Lake Chelan, then within about a week, had crossed the lake and two major mountain ranges to come back to the original human food source). My impression is the WDFW makes a genuine, exhaustive effort, to avoid resorting to lethal removal whenever possible. For example, even though they caught a bear on Blackbird Island, it was not the bear they had previously received numerous reports of. They had no previous record of their trapped bear, concluded no evidence of growing threat, and they released it.

Bears are intelligent. They can learn quickly, especially if it increases their calories per bite ten-fold. But if humans can easily get addicted to quick, dense, junk food, we can expect similar tendencies from bears, who appreciate fattening up. And just as it is easier said than done for ourselves, so too must effort be exerted if we hope to prevent this type of learning and habituation from bears.

“At the end of the day it comes back to food sources,” says Elder. Beausoleil emphasizes how effective securing possible food sources, such as our garbage bins, can be, at reducing unnecessary bear interactions. King County implemented a pilot “Bear Smart'' program in 2016 where certain municipalities subsidized bear-resistant garbage containers and increased education efforts. Anecdotally, Beausoleil noticed a dramatic reduction in bear-related reportings around the same time. He also recalled the local Barn Beach Reserve becoming proactive about bear-resistant containers several years ago and saw a similar dramatic decrease in incidents. To support his point more scientifically, he emailed me a 2018 research study from Durango, CO., where bear-related conflicts were reduced by 60% in the half of the community where they increased efforts to supply bear-resistant containers and educate residents.

Along with using bear-resistant garbage containers, Beausoleil urges residents to consider keeping containers indoors whenever possible (for example in a garage), and to try to put garbage out at the latest possible moment (same day rather than the night before pick-up). Motivated and creative residents have implemented other deterrents that have so far proven successful: the Valley Cafe installed a custom lock on their city-issued garbage bin; The Alpine Rivers Inn rubbed a small coat of ammonia on their garbage lids; and David Ising, at Blewett Brewing, soaked some bread in habanero hot sauce, threw it in with the trash, and has not seen a bear rummaging through since.

Voos says the City is “absolutely looking at ways to manage garbage in a way that prevents bears from getting into garbage cans.” The City has already increased garbage pickup from six days-per-week to seven, they are sending the Public Works Director, Tom Wachholder, to a conference for communities which are seeing similar bear activity, and they are coordinating closely with the WDFW. Waste Management, which picks up single-residence garbage, offers bear-resistant bins for an extra $13 per month, which is understandably not affordable for everyone.

Many of us chose to live here, in bear country. And even though there are 500 sightings reported to the WDFW every year, only about 20 encounters have resulted in human injury since 1970. There has been only one recorded bear-related human death, which occurred in 1974. So, in Washington, we averaged 0.3 black bear-related human injuries and a negligible 0.02 black bear-related human fatalities per year. On the other hand, around 50 black bears are put down every year in Washington. For the same encounter, a bear takes on a disproportionate amount of risk. Perhaps we should assume a large proportion of the responsibility. Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of droughts, late spring frosts, and natural resource challenges. And natural resource challenges are expected to increase bear movement toward human-related resources. As we near the hibernation months, bears will get hungrier. In the coming months and years, therefore, it may be prudent to increase our vigilance if we are interested in reducing risky encounters with the bears as pressures mount for their search for food.

Is bear activity different this year in Leavenworth? Perhaps. Probably at least slightly. Perceived changes may be explained by the difficult weather, by location visibility, or something else. But most residents, old or new, can agree with Beausoleil on at least one thing: “[Bears] are always going to move through [Leavenworth]… You’re gonna have sightings.” And the choices we make for the remainder of this season and years forward will impact whether those sightings increase the risk of unfortunate interactions. By acting to reduce bear access to unnatural, human-generated food sources, especially during the feeding months from spring to fall, we can greatly reduce the occurrence of high-risk encounters and ultimately reduce the number of WDFW lethal bear removals. By securing trash bins, keeping them indoors for as long as possible, and removing bird feeders and pet food from the outdoors during these months, we can more peacefully coexist with the bears. 

If you have questions for the city, email If you’d like to order a bear-resistant garbage container from Waste Management, call 877-466-4668. To report a habituated bear, call WDFW at 360-902-2936. 

Corrections: Part one initially stated, "brown bears" but it was supposed to read "black bears." There has been no official record of Grizzly bears (commonly referred to as "brown bears") in the area since the 1990s. Part one also specified a number of lethal removals, this number has been removed until further verification.



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