OLYMPIA – Over the past few weeks, unusually aggressive behavior by black bears and coyotes in suburban Puget Sound has forced wildlife officers to euthanize several of the animals.
While spring typically brings an increase in wildlife sightings, the recent incidents might have been avoided if humans had refrained from feeding the animals or allowing them access to garbage, said Capt. Bill Hebner, who heads Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW’s) North Puget Sound enforcement division.
“Feeding potentially dangerous animals is simply cruel—it causes the animals to become more aggressive around people, creating a safety hazard that can lead to a tragic outcome,” said Hebner.
By WDFW policy, officers euthanize dangerous animals such as bears and cougars that have clearly lost their fear of humans. In cases where the animal has not behaved aggressively, it may be marked with an identification tag and then relocated into the wild, but even those situations are not the “happy endings” they may seem.
Even if a suitable wild release site can be found a sufficient distance from human habitation, the relocated animal may be killed by other animals already living in that territory, hit by vehicles as it travels to find new territory, or end up back in the area where it had been receiving human handouts. Marked animals that reappear where they were originally captured are euthanized.
“Only about 50 percent of releases are successful,” said Hebner. “This is not a pleasant outcome for the animal, regardless of what happens.”
A case in point occurred last night, when an adult female bear rummaging through an unlocked garbage dumpster outside an Issaquah apartment complex was captured by WDFW wildlife experts. Although officers will attempt to relocate the bear, another, more aggressive bear was shot Monday night when it snapped its jaws and charged at officers after they pursued it from the same unlocked dumpster.
Just last year, Rocky Spencer, a WDFW wildlife biologist who specializes in dangerous-wildlife response, worked with the local refuse company to get special bear-proof locking dumpsters installed at the apartment complex. This afternoon he is out at the site again, posting flyers on the dumpsters seeking residents’ cooperation in keeping the containers locked.
“People need to remember that a fed bear is a dead bear,” said Spencer. “No matter what the intention, feeding doesn’t help the animal—it can indirectly cause its death. Many of the situations where animals were euthanized could have been avoided if people had not drawn the animals in the first place.”
While bears and coyotes naturally avoid contact with people, the animals learn more aggressive behavior if they are fed, either intentionally or inadvertently. Once the animals learn to associate people with food, they lose their instinctive fear of humans, approaching more closely and becoming increasingly aggressive.
“It’s a progression— first the animal takes the food, then it learns to approach humans because it expects food,” said Spencer. “At that point, the animal has become dangerous.”
Besides the bears at the Issaquah apartment, several other recent incidents illustrate the same problem:
- WDFW officers yesterday trapped and re-located a female bear in the Tiger Mountain area, after a woman called to report the animal was clawing at the sliding-door screen of her home. Responding officers found dishes of pet food on the floor just inside the screen door. Other nearby residents reported a man in the area has been feeding bears there for some time.
- Last week, WDFW officers trapped and euthanized a bear in Skykomish after a woman reported the animal was in the back of her parked pickup truck. The officers found bags of garbage in the open truck bed. The same bear had rummaged through garbage in other nearby trucks and had attempted to break through back door of a nearby house after scattering garbage on the back porch.
- In late April, officers euthanized two coyotes in Bellevue after two young children were bitten while their parents were nearby. Coyotes had also scratched and snapped at two women and charged a man in the same area. The coyotes’ abnormally aggressive behavior likely resulted from being fed by people, according to WDFW biologists.
With their omnivorous appetite and keen sense of smell, bears are attracted to many outdoor food sources-- even birdseed in an outdoor feeder. Besides unsecured garbage, they may be drawn by pet food, windfall fruit or composting kitchen waste.
Although WDFW has taken a number of steps to reduce the risk of wildlife encounters—from publicizing wildlife safety information to setting up a dangerous-wildlife incident hotline—residents themselves have a role to play in minimizing encounters with bears or other potentially dangerous wild animals including:
- Tightly covering garbage cans and storing them in a garage or another secure area until collection day
- Removing pet food from areas that are easily accessible by wild animals. Pet food attracts bears and coyotes directly and can draw the small wildlife that is prey for cougars
- Thoroughly cleaning barbecue grills after each use
- Taking down birdfeeders for the summer season. Birdfeeders can be filled again in the fall when natural food sources become scarce for birds
More information on living with black bears is available online at http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/bears.html.
More information on living with cougars is available online at http://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/bear_cougar/.
WDFW responds to cougar and bear sightings when there is a threat to public safety or property. Report sightings to the local WDFW regional office, or WDFW’s dangerous-wildlife hotline, 1-800-477-6224. In the case of an emergency, dial 911.