Bear facts educate highlands residents

June 30, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

Whenever her Issaquah Highlands neighbors reported a black bear sighting or bear activity last year, Cathy Macchio marked a highlands map with a paw print. She recorded 15 bear sightings last year.

Macchio works to make sure humans and bears stay safe — no small feat in a sprawling neighborhood with nearly 7,000 residents. Bears, after all, are attracted to everything from garbage to backyard bird feeders.

“We’re creating these big buffet tables in our own backyards,” she said.

As part of the effort to protect bears and her neighbors, Macchio leads Neighborhood Wildlife Stewards. The group discusses wildlife sightings in the highlands and works to educate residents about how to share habitats with four-legged neighbors.

State wildlife officials estimate the black bear population in Washington ranges between 25,000 and 30,000 animals. Agents receive hundreds of black bear complaints each year. The calls range from sightings to property damage to livestock attacks. A few calls each year come as a result of confrontations between humans and bears.

Macchio said the best bet is to call wildlife agents about nuisance bears instead of local law enforcement agencies.

Humans moving into black bear habitat complicate the contact between the species. Bears use a keen sense of smell to track down food. Bears are omnivores, and they consume a variety of plants — berries and grasses, for instance — and insects, such as ants and grubs. But they also have a taste for garbage, pet food and the contents of bird feeders. After bears discover food, chances are they will return. The animals have excellent memories.

Problems arise when bears become “food-conditioned” and associate humans with food rewards. As a result, bears can become unafraid of humans. Emboldened bears can be a danger to humans, and these bears could become aggressive as they search for food.

State Wildlife Officer Bruce Richards said bears are active from late spring until early fall. Most reports of human contact with bears come during the summer months, he said.

Issaquah residents have reported several bear sightings during the past few weeks. At about noon June 3, a black bear was spotted on Issaquah-Fall City Road near Endeavour Elementary School. Over Memorial Day weekend, wildlife agents captured and released a black bear found roaming through an Issaquah neighborhood. Lat Sunday a bear was reported in the Four Lakes neighborhood south of Issaquah.

Richards and his colleagues have specialized training and equipment to deal with bears.

Officers respond to bear sightings when the animal poses a threat to public safety. A sighting alone does not constitute a threat, and wildlife agents would not typically respond to reports of a sighting.

Nuisance bears can be trapped by wildlife agents and relocated. But bears with a taste for garbage are likely to seek out other sources. If relocation fails, a nuisance bear may have to be destroyed.

Richards works with Mishka, the first Karelian bear dog in the nation used for wildlife enforcement. Richards and Mishka track nuisance bears. Mishka also assists in “hard releases” — a process to make bears fear humans again. During a hard release, wildlife officers fire rubber bullets and create loud noises to frighten a nuisance bear. Richards estimates the procedure was successful in 80 percent of the black bear hard releases last spring and summer.

Mindful that nuisance bears often return or seek other sources of garbage, Macchio posted signs with bear safety tips at community mailboxes throughout the highlands. Moreover, she said another bear would often move in to fill the vacuum after wildlife agents relocate a nuisance animal.

Macchio checks out the neighborhood for signs of bear activity. On her rounds, she also passes out fliers to residents on streets where bears dumped garbage bins. Her goal is to remind people how bears can become a threat once they lose their fear of humans.

Macchio recently began working with Heather Swift, principal and owner of Cohabitats, a Seattle company that developers and planners use to identify conservation areas and educate residents to prevent conflicts between humans and wildlife.

“Instead of increasing alarm, we want to increase harmony across species,” Swift said.

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