State biologists say a meager berry crop and an abundance of human garbage have combined to spell trouble for relations between wild bears and their human neighbors. (Photo courtesy Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife).
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
The stretch of Interstate 84 near Ladd Creek has been deadly for a family of black bears.
On Tuesday night about 10 p.m. a westbound semi truck struck and killed a 5-year-old, 210-pound female bear near Milepost 272.
Thats close to where the freeway crosses Ladd Creek between North Powder and La Grande.
Its also almost the exact place where the bears mother and brother were hit and killed in October 1996, said Tara Wertz, a biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlifes (ODFW) La Grande office.
Those three bears constitute the only ursine casualties on that stretch of freeway, at least according to ODFW records, Wertz said.
In the past few years one black bear was hit and killed by a car on Ore. Highway 86 near Oxbow, and another on Interstate 84 near Durkee, said George Keister, head biologist at ODFWs Baker City office.
Wertz said Ladd Creek is a natural travel corridor for many species of animals, including deer and elk.
Drivers need to be aware of that, she said.
Wertz suspects the bear that was hit Tuesday was foraging for berries and attracted by the cooler air along the creek.
In general, though, Wertz said bears are less likely than most other animals to cross a freeway.
ODFW biologists were first acquainted with the bear, known as No. 74, in March 1996, just three months after the cub was born to bear No. 18, Wertz said.
The mothers den, which No. 74 later inherited, is in the base of a big fir tree a couple miles west of the freeway, Wertz said.
Biologists implanted a computer chip in each of No. 18s three cubs, by which the animals movements could be tracked.
In October 1996 No. 18 and one of the cubs, a male, were hit and killed on the freeway, Wertz said.
Biologists tried to find the two surviving cubs, figuring that at the age of 10 months they were too young to survive without their mother, she said.
But they never found either of the two cubs.
Then, in June of 1998, biologists working on a bear study treed a bear in the Ladd Creek area and shot her with a tranquilizing dart, Wertz said.
They were surprised to find it was No. 74.
They fitted her with a radio-transmitting collar, allowing them to follow the bears movements from an airplane.
No. 74 had taken over her mothers home range, which spans the area west of the freeway from near Ladd Marsh south to Ladd Creek, she said.
Biologists expected No. 74 would have her first litter of cubs this winter.
She was one of the larger female bears ODFW has ever found in Northeastern Oregon, Wertz said.
Only one sow weighed more 225 pounds and that bear was about nine years old, she said.
Female bears usually lose weight after bearing cubs, primarily because they have to produce milk for their young for several months even while hibernating, Wertz said.
ODFW warns about bear problems
PORTLAND A meager berry crop in parts of Oregon combined with a smorgasbord of human food and garbage has biologists tracking bear complaints in many areas of the state. A few problem bears already have been killed recently because they showed signs of aggression toward people.
Biologists from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) provide the following recent examples:
o A coastal bear near Waldport feeding on garbage and pet food was killed by a homeowner because of the safety concerns.
o A Damascus bear in eastern Multnomah County has been seen several times eating from residents garbage. It has eluded capture. Other bears have been sighted in Sandy and Welches in Clackamas County.
o Campers in central Oregon campgrounds have seen bears near Crescent Lake eating from campers garbage.
The number of bear complaints statewide dropped in 2000 to 335 from 904 in 1999. The five-year average is 645. This year is shaping up to be potentially as bad as 1999, said Don Whittaker, an ODFW biologist who tracks the bear population statewide.
The complaints began early this year and stem from dry conditions that reduced natural food production in high elevations. As a result, bears have traveled to low elevations seeking food. Bears can become problems when they find human food, garbage, pet food or bird food to eat instead.
ODFW will not relocate bears habituated to humans. Research indicates these animals will seek human foods in their new habitat or move to an area where human foods are available. Most bears sighted in residential areas do not cause problems. However, bears that are habituated to human food become a human safety concern. Biologists, landowners or other wildlife managers are left with little choice but to humanely destroy them. About 250 bears are killed each year because they cause damage to agriculture or livestock or threaten human safety.
andquot;Its unfortunate, but if we have to trap a bear, the bear is likely going to be destroyed,andquot; said Whittaker. andquot;But theres several things people can do to prevent problems from occurring.andquot; In summer and early fall, bears sometimes feed every waking minute to gear up for winter hibernation, a behavior known as hyperfagia. Its the bears quest for food that sometimes gets them in trouble with humans. Bears are opportunistic feeders and will take advantage of easy backyard or campground spoils. Once bears have found a food source they will return for more and can cause injury to humans, livestock and damage to property.
Bears are driven by their stomach. Whether the attractant is pet food, bird feeders or human garbage, they are willing to go to great lengths for food, said Tom Thornton, ODFW wildlife biologist in the Portland area.
Officials suggest being cautious when feeding birds in bear country. Biologists recommend using regular birdseed and not suet feeders. The fat in suet will attract bears says Thornton. Some folks have put tarps under their feeders to help keep the seed cleaned up. Many bring their feeders in at night. The idea is to leave nothing out that will attract bears, related Thornton. If bears dont find a reward, they will look somewhere else for food.
Play it safe it bear country
ODFW has a few other suggestions when living in bear country:
1. Remove all food attractants. Dont leave food unattended. Bears are creatures of habit and will return to spots where they have previously found food.
2. Keep all garbage inside your house or closed garage, and only place it outside just before the garbage pick-up.
3. If bears have previously ransacked garbage cans, pour bleach into cans to remove odors.
4. Keep all pet food inside the house or garage.
5. Add electric fences, which are inexpensive and offer an easy way to deter bears from fruit trees, compost piles or beehives.
6. Clean up barbecue grills and store them inside. The odor from grills will attract bears.
When camping, keep all food and garbage locked in containers and stored in secure facilities, such as your car. Biologists advise to never store food in your tent.
To obtain additional information on living and camping in bear country and protecting yourself in the unlikely event of an attack, contact a local ODFW office to obtain the brochure Living with Wildlife: Black Bear.
If bears are a problem on your property or exhibit aggressive behavior, contact the nearest ODFW office. If you encounter a bear while camping in a National Forest campground, report the incident to the U.S. Forest Service.