Thursday, June 20, 2024

Bears and more bears, yes or no?

Part 1: To what extent is bear presence changing?


Rich Beausoleil has been tagging, tracking, and researching bears since 1997. Beausoleil is a North American bear expert, lives close by in Wenatchee, and works for our Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. For the last ten years Beausoleil and the WDFW have used GPS tagging and DNA sampling to acquire a more accurate understanding of bear population, population density, and activity patterns. Washington has a population of about 20,000 black bears, and the Eastern Cascade Study Area, which includes Leavenworth, has a population density of approximately 16 bears for every 100 square kilometers (about 38 square miles). According to Rich, there have been no significant changes to either figure recently. But one source estimates the number of bears the WDFW lethally removes every year is growing substantially, though the exact number is contested.

“There has been more bear activity this year than in years past,” according to Christie Voos, communications analyst for the city. Across neighborhoods, residents have also reported noticing an increase in personal encounters with bears this year. Yet others, including Marjie Ludwick, who lives near Eagle Creek Road, an area with greater forest cover and more frequent bear sightings than downtown, have noticed little or no change: “I haven’t noticed anything that makes me think this year is any different, with more or fewer bears than previous years.” Still others, including Diane Wells, who lives in the Alpensee Strasse neighborhood, have experienced a decrease. Neither the WDFW nor the City had readily available figures on whether reporting’s or incidents have increased. But there have been at least a handful of encounters this year in more visible and dense parts of the city, likely the result of just one or maybe two bears.

On August 18th, WDFW set a trap for a bear on Blackbird Island. A bear was caught, then released. On August 20th a bear was again reported on Blackbird Island. As recent as August 24th, a bear was photographed along with strewn trash behind Valley Cafe on Commercial. Earlier the same week Madi Russ saw a bear closing up at Blewett Brewing, likely the same one. Madi’s supervisor caught the bear on video rummaging through the restaurant's trash the week prior. Madi, her supervisor, and staff at the Valley Cafe have all worked here multiple years, but this year was their first encounter with a bear behind Commercial.

“When you look at it on a map, or you rise above it like a bird would, boy… you see how all these canyons just feed right into Leavenworth,” Beausoleil proudly told me. The modern American black bear, Ursus americanas, evolved in North America and has lived here ever since, 4-5 million years ago. Unlike Grizzlies, which are not native to our continent, have had no confirmed presence in our region since 1996, and are far more territorial, black bears have been Leavenworth’s friendly neighbors for as long as residents can remember. “Grizzlies are more open country, lightly timbered, whereas black bears are a forest dweller.” Leavenworth is surrounded by forest cover, vegetation, and berries. We live in “bear country,” says Beausoleil. Residents living closer to city limits along East Leavenworth Road, Icicle Road, and the Chumstick, have always frequently seen bears. Most enjoy it; Beausoleil too: “I live here because I like the size of the communities and the natural setting.”

At the same time, Beausoleil recognizes Leavenworth needs to improve its relationship with bears. Nearly every time he and his WDFW colleagues discuss cities needing improvement on human-wildlife conflict and education, “Leavenworth is one of the first places we talk about.”

Black bears are more similar to humans than most people expect. Though it has been known bears are smarter than dogs, more recent studies suggest some of their cognitive abilities, including their ability to count and form complex associative memories, may prove they have an intellect closer to primates. Like us, bear mothers are protective of their cubs, their average litter size is two, and when cubs emerge from the den, they usually weigh around five pounds. Also like us, black bears are tolerant of most, but not all, humans. Beausoleil draws three other similarities. One, all bears are unique individuals with unique personalities, “You cannot paint their behavior with a brush.” Two, they love living here for similar reasons we love living here, “Look at all the berries we can pick.” And three, they love high-calorie junk food, “[They] are no different than you or I on a busy day, hitting the drive-through for a quick bite.”

To understand a bear’s attraction to Leavenworth, you might imagine what you would do if you found yourself starving, mid-elevation, in our Cascade Range, as the snow is beginning to melt in April. Fresh green vegetation will be most immediately available to you. So, you eat it. As snow continues to melt, more nutritious greens will sprout, and you might follow the growth up the mountain. Eventually, you will reach a high enough elevation where the snow has yet to melt and available vegetation declines. So, you head downslope to look for food. By now, it may be deep into spring, and during most years, you will find berries aplenty. But what if one year the berries are lacking? Or, by chance, you catch a pungent waft of leftover heirloom tomatoes, Tillamook cheddar, or schnitzel emanating from a delicious bag of garbage. To survive the winter months, bears need to consume about 5,000 calories a day, and up to 20,000 just before hibernation. A pound of huckleberries might be about 160 calories. A pound of ground beef is around 1,600; a pound of bird seed is 2,600; and a large cheese pizza is nearly 3,000 calories. Why spend 20 hours scavenging for berries, when you could spend 20 minutes tossing garbage cans and bird feeders. Like us, bears can and will remember where they found good food, and what was associated with it (garbage bins, homes, times of day and week). And just like us, especially when resource-constrained, they easily get hooked on junk food.

When asked about bears in the Cashmere area, it was noted that in Cashmere there is definitely less activity than Leavenworth because the bear habitat is not 360 degrees around town (Bear habitat is only 1/3 of it). Also, there are large orchards along the edge of the habitat so there is no need for the bears to go past apples to get into town as they have an easier food resource.  See Part 2 Bears: What should residents expect and do? in next week’s issue.


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