Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

UPDATE: ODFW officials trapped a male bear about 9 p.m. Thursday near Jan Smith's home near Sawmill Gulch. A bear had entered Smith's home on Wednesday night after she apparently inadvertently failed to latch her front door. The trapped bear, which ODFW employees killed per agency policy, is the same bear that a Sumpter man shot in the face with a pistol on Sept. 7 while the bear stood on his front porch. It's the third bear trapped and killed in or near Sumpter since Sept. 23.

Brian Ratliff, district wildlife biologist at ODFW's Baker City office, said this afternoon that he was surprised the bear survived the gunshot. Ratliff said the bear, which he estimated was 3 years old and weighed about 160 pounds, had largely healed from the wound. The bullet traveled through the roof of the bear's mouth and tongue before exiting. It caused considerable damage to the bear's front incisor teeth, Ratliff said.

Ratliff said at least one other bear is still in the Sawmill Gulch area, just south of Sumpter. He said ODFW will set a trap there today.

Jan Smith stayed calm for about 10 minutes, and then she realized what might have happened had the black bear that lumbered into her isolated home not been satisfied with making a mess of a bookcase.

“I just started shaking,” Smith said Thursday morning, several hours after she discovered the nature of her late-night intruder.

The books that the bear scattered about had been shelved just inside the front door of Smith’s home, which is in the forest near Sumpter, and at the end of a mile-long driveway off Sawmill Gulch Road.

Smith can’t be certain what happened. But because the door wasn’t damaged, she’s pretty sure she either forgot to shut the door or that it didn’t latch. That’s happened before with that door, said Smith, 78, who summers on her property near Sumpter and spends winters in Riverside County, California.

After a morning that Smith laughingly describes as “exciting,” she will give that door a much firmer shove from here on out.

“You can be darned sure that door will be locked good,” she said.

Smith said she also feels more secure after meeting with officials from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and the Baker County Sheriff’s Office Thursday morning.

The ODFW workers set up a bear trap on Smith’s property.

Smith said she hopes the trap will nab her ursine visitor.

Although she admits that she’s also “pretty tender-hearted.”

“I’ll probably feel very bad if I hear it crying all night (in the trap),” she said.

If the bear does venture into the trap, which is baited with dog food and sausage, it would be the third black bear that employees from ODFW’s Baker City office have trapped the past two weeks in and near Sumpter.

The office has also fielded several other reports about bruins foraging for food on Sumpter residents’ properties and, on occasion, their front porches.

It’s likely that the dry summer, which limited the crop of berries and other foods, has contributed to the proliferation of bears in the Sumpter area, said Brian Ratliff, district wildlife biologist at ODFW’s Baker City office.

“All they’re trying to do is put on weight as fast as they can” as they prepare to hibernate, usually around mid-November, Ratliff said.

Padding their fat reserves before hibernation can be a bigger challenge for Baker County bears, though, because the county’s rivers don’t have runs of salmon and steelhead that bears in neighboring counties, including Grant, Union and Wallowa, rely on to satisfy their autumn appetites, Ratliff said.

Although it’s not uncommon for famished bears to temporarily overcome their instinctive fear of humans and nose around homes to satiate their appetite, property owners can greatly reduce the temptation by not making food readily available, Ratliff said.

But he said some Sumpter residents have enticed bears by failing to store garbage cans inside buildings and, in several cases, by keeping stocked refrigerators and freezers outdoors.

Although people can’t smell food stored inside those appliances, bears can, Ratliff said.

“A bear’s nose is just phenomenal,” he said.

Burgeoning bear problem

The bearish trend is not limited to Sumpter.

Ratliff said that since Aug. 1, the Baker City ODFW office has checked in 36 dead bears — eight more than during the same period a year ago.

More notably, he said, four of those bears were killed after damage complaints rather than by sport hunters. That includes the two bears that ODFW employees trapped in Sumpter, and two other bears that agency workers killed in the Burnt River Canyon in September after the bears couldn’t be lured into a trap, Ratliff said.

Ratliff said ODFW does not release bears that have shown a propensity for living near people.

The Burnt River Canyon bears had broken into a large trash container on a private campground, and the owners were unable to deter the bears from returning several times, Ratliff said.

By contrast, there were no bears killed in the county on damage complaints during that period in either 2016 or 2015, he said.

Most bears are killed by sport hunters who have tags. Hunters are required to bring the bear’s skull (and the reproductive tract, in the case of female bears) to an ODFW office within 10 days of harvesting the animal. Biologists collect a pre-molar tooth to gauge the bear’s age.

But several other bears were killed after they roamed near homes, Ratliff said.

Biologists from the Baker City office trapped and killed one bear inside the Sumpter city limits on Sept. 23 and another on Tuesday.