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Bears in the Backyard

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Photo by Carl Zmuda Photo by Carl Zmuda

It's not your imagination... there's lots and lots of bears around this summer


If  the twister dropped Dorothy and Toto off in North Idaho instead of Oz, she would have been exclaiming, “Bears and bears and bears, oh my!” Toto probably wouldn’t have survived the night either. 

It’s hard to miss the telltale signs that the bears are out in full force this summer. The gigantic piles of poo left strategically in the middle of the driveway and the trash cans with their contents flung across the yard like a giant nine-year-old went off his Ritalin are both sure signs that Mr. Bear visited. While usually just a nuisance—or a tourist’s dream come true—the bears this year are causing some real concern in the community.

 Take Friday night at Trisha’s Place in Hope a few weeks ago. Early in the season is like that Billy Joel song, if you change the day... and the time. But at five o’clock on a Friday, the “regular crowd shuffles in.” Mostly it’s locals, there to enjoy Trisha’s famous shrimp and clam soup, though as summer arrives more and more tourists are poking their heads in the door. But a few weeks ago, as Trisha was preparing for the night, soup bubbling on the stove, there was an unexpected visitor.

“Trish, whatever you do, don’t move.” Trisha’s boyfriend, Jay McGinnis, had come in the front door of the building where outside, the Food Services of America delivery truck pulled in. Trisha had just finished mopping and propping—cleaning the kitchen floor, then propping open the back door so the floor would dry more quickly—and was working on paperwork at a table near the kitchen. At Jay’s words, she jumped and yelled, “What?! What?!,” thinking a spider was creeping toward her head.

This, of course, badly frightened the young black bear that was nosing around through the kitchen. Jay sent Trisha outside to warn the FSA driver not to bring deliveries in through the propped-open kitchen door and shortly after, seeing a path to safety, the bruin rushed past Jay and out the front door to freedom, in full view of the early arrivals of the Friday night regulars.

The residents of Trestle Creek, just a few miles down the road from Trisha’s Place, know all about the busy bears’ schedules. So far Scott Hancock has seen up to eleven different bears this year at Trestle Creek, even seeing as many as six bears in one day (only two of which were repeats). Personal belongings left outside are no longer safe; bird feeders, trash cans, and anything else smelling of food is being taken into the woods. Sadly, even some cats have been reported missing but these cannot be directly related to the bears as coyotes have been seen in the area as well. 

When asked about precautions, Scott stated in true North Idahoan fashion, “My bear-proofing measures are a large caliber hand gun shot into a dirt mound. And while I have no intention of shooting ‘em, I have no intention of becoming a meal on wheels.” Hancock, you see, has been in a wheelchair since he was a youngster, after a bout with polio.

The rest of the Trestle Creek residents have all shelled out for heavy duty bear spray and rubber bullets. 

So why have we been seeing so many bears around the area this year? Matt Haag, an Idaho Fish and Game Warden, has attributed the boom to a few factors. For the last three years or so Unit 1, the Fish and Game area that accounts for everything north of the Clark Fork River, Lake Pend Oreille, and Pend Oreille River, has had very low bear harvests. Of course, I got confused and thought people farmed bears (did I mention I’m not a hunter?) but Matt was referring to the fact that hunters have taken very few bears for a while. This, plus a bountiful huckleberry crop, has boosted bear populations. 

Now the reason why they are getting to be such a nuisance this spring and summer… Matt explained that the extremely rainy spring and late frost was very hard on the bears. The cold, wet, and all-around miserable weather is a heavy burden on an animal that must constantly eat to survive. Bears lose a lot of valuable calories when their bodies are stoking the furnace all the time and a furnace needs fuel. 

“It’s tough goin’ when the spring’s wet,” Matt said about the bears, “and it only gets harder when they are competing with each other [for food] at the same time.”

This competition and trouble finding food has forced bears out of their usual foraging and into easier pickings. The backyards of residences around the Panhandle have turned out to be the coolers for a bear’s summer picnic. Matt claims that most of the calls he gets about bears around residences can be traced back to three things: bird feeders, dog food, and trash. If these things go, so will the bears as a rule. It doesn’t even have to be your home that’s attracting the bears. If a guy three houses down is responsible for drawing in the bear you’ll still most likely get a visit. 

“We haven’t done anything wrong,” Trisha Stockman explained. “We don’t like it, but if we can’t get to the dump, we lock our garbage in the car. But other people have not been as careful. The bear scat around here has been filled with bird seed.”

Even if you aren’t on the bear’s paper route yet, it’s still a great idea to preemptively avoid a visit. While bird song is a wonderful thing to have around your home a two-hundred-pound black bear might not be. Taking down bird feeders, keeping pet food inside, securing trash cans so bears can’t get to them, and removing other areas that smell of food around the house will protect not only you, but the bears as well. 

Bears, while naturally afraid of humans, will start coming around if they are hungry enough. If the food supply stays constant bears will start to become habituated. This means they lose their fear of humans and start associating us with food. A bear works hard to find enough food to sustain life, and they’re quickly appreciative of such easy pickin’s as black oil sunflower seeds or protein-packed dog food. And that flat iron steak you cooked outside is every bit as tasty three days later to a bear who catches the scent of greasy grill in the wind. Bears, by the way, are thought to have the best sense of smell of any animal on the planet. They can sniff out a food source upwind from about 20 miles away. Yes, that’s 20. T-w-e-n-t-y.

Relying solely on human-related food, bears will stop their natural foraging habits. This becomes dangerous not only because there are bears hanging around, but they start viewing the trash cans they’ve been eating out of for weeks as their territory. So when someone does finally try to shoo away the bear it is viewed as a challenge rather than being something scary the bear should run away from. 

This is not to say that every bear that doesn’t run away is habituated. Matt says that the bears are so hungry they will ignore the flight response when the smell of food is so close. In fact, a bear’s eyesight is so poor they might not even see the person screaming and waving their arms around. Matt described bears as having “eyes on their noses.” 

Look for predatory responses when encountering a bear. Ears back, accommodating a boxer-like stance, and walking while actively looking at a person are all signs that point towards “get the hell out of there.” If these signs aren’t being displayed then the bear is probably just curious about where all the delicious smells are coming from. 

If a bear has been getting too close for comfort Matt, or any other Fish and Game warden, is happy to drop off some rubber bullets. These are shot out of a twelve gauge shotgun and “while they won’t do any damage, they’ll hurt a ton,” he said. In an extreme case, Fish and Game will also come out and trap the bear, and remove it to a more remote area, which is what they did with the young bear who threatened to become a regular customer at Trisha’s Place.

You can reach Matt at (208)-946-0671 or email him at matt.haag(at)idfg.gov with any questions regarding bears. Just keep in mind that trapping and moving a bear is a last resort and most of the time the problem can be taken care of by the home owner taking away food supplies. 

While it is a last resort Matt has had to move two bears from Hope and may have to do more. He feels that there are between five and seven bears (including the ones already moved) that are close to being 100 percent habituated in the Hope area alone. Matt has tried trapping more of these bears but they have eluded him so far. 

If trapping does not work then the only other option is euthanizing the bear which no one wants to see happen. So please, we must take it upon ourselves to keep the balance not just for our sake, but for the bears as well. 

The regional Fish and Game office is located in Couer d’Alene and can be reached at (208)-769-1414.

In the photo, Carl Zmuda of Hope got this picture of a trash-can raiding bear with the security cam on his house. He says the ‘real’ garbage is locked in the garage; the cans outside didn’t contain garbage at all. Nonetheless, the bear had to check them out.


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Author info

Thomas McMahon Thomas McMahon is a student at Albertson's College of Idaho who, when he's not playing some geeky video game or designing some new, award-winning engineering project, plays basketball and tennis. His study interest is engineering.

Tagged as:

outdoors, wildlife, bears, Trisha's Place

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