Encounter at Issaquah school offers bear safety reminder

October 16, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Mike Pernack spotted a black bear cub in Squak Mountain’s Big Bear Court neighborhood Oct. 4. By Mike Pernack

Issaquah Valley Elementary School administrators briefly put the campus into lockdown Oct. 3 after surprise guests ambled onto school grounds.

State Department of Fish and Wildlife officers, plus Mishka, a Karelian bear dog, responded to the downtown Issaquah school, but arrived after a female bear and trio of cubs dashed across campus.

The event caused some excitement for Issaquah Valley Elementary students — and served as a reminder about the careful balance between bear and human interaction.

“Those bears, they’re not there looking for kids to eat or anything like that,” Department of Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Kim Chandler said. “They just happen to be there.”

What to know
Report a potentially dangerous wild animal to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Dangerous Animal Hotline at 1-800-477-6224 toll free. Call 911 for emergencies.

The female bear spotted on the Issaquah Valley Elementary campus did not have a history of aggressive behavior, he added.

The dry stretch throughout summer and into autumn impacted bears’ food sources, and residents in Issaquah and elsewhere in Western Washington can expect more bear encounters as the animals forage for food before winter.

“They’re chowing down and putting on those layers of fat to get them through the winter,” Chandler said.

Department of Fish and Wildlife officers from the regional office in Mill Creek fielded complaints in recent weeks about bears pilfering fruit orchards or, more commonly, digging through garbage containers.

Usually, bears tend to steer clear of humans, but the fear fades if the omnivorous animals become food-conditioned, or come to identify humans as a food source.

Conflicts can arise after people feed the animals. If a person puts out treats for bears or neglects to secure potential food sources, such as garbage containers, pet food and birdfeeders, he or she can attract unwanted attention from the animals.

Search for food sources

Weather conditions also play a significant role in bear-human encounters, especially if bears’ traditional food sources decline.

“This particular year, it’s a tough one. That berry crop just kind of dried up and blew away,” Chandler said.

State wildlife officers respond to bear reports if a threat to safety or property exists, although a sighting alone does not constitute a threat. Usually, officers do not attempt to remove, relocate or terminate the animal.

But problem bears require a more forceful response. Wildlife officers or professionals can trap and relocate animals to more remote areas, but once the animals acquire a taste for garbage, they can return, even across great distances.

“If you take a bear from Issaquah and haul him up to wherever — Stampede Pass or clear on the other side of Snoqualmie Pass — now you’re dumping that bear into somebody else’s living room,” Chandler said.

Tranquilizing the animals also poses a risk to bears and humans.

If other options fail, destroying the animal may be the appropriate course of action.

“It’s a major undertaking to trap a bear, and if he comes back, that’s pretty much a death sentence,” Chandler said. “If you see a bear with a yellow ear tag with his head in the garbage can, he’s already had his one chance.”

The incident at Issaquah Valley Elementary echoed a similar incident at a Woodinville junior high school. Chandler said a bear sighting prompted administrators to declare a lockdown.

“I said, ‘You understand you’ve your school policies and all that, but gee whiz, to be absolutely honest with you, those bears don’t like junior high kids any more than the rest of us do,’” he said. “‘They want to stay as far away as they can from them.’”

How to avoid bear conflicts

Do not feed bears

Nearly all — more than 90 percent — conflicts between bears and humans result from bears becoming conditioned to associate food with people. A wild bear can become permanently food-conditioned after a single food handout.

Manage trash

Put garbage out shortly before trucks arrive — not the night before. If you plan to leave several days before pickup, haul garbage to a dump. Keep garbage cans with tight-fitting lids in a shed, garage or fenced area. Spray garbage bins regularly with disinfectants to reduce odors. Keep fish and meat waste in the freezer until they can be disposed of properly. Do not put fish, meat or fruit into compost bins. Use lime in compost to reduce odors.

Remove other attractants

Remove bird feeders from early March through November, as bears become active. Feeders allow residue to build up on the ground below them. Bring in hummingbird feeders at night. Harvest orchard fruit from trees regularly. Do not feed pets outside. Reduce oat and pellet spillage by feeding livestock from buckets. Clean barbecue grills after each use.

Install fences and other barriers

Use electric fencing to prevent raids on orchards, livestock and beehives. However, fencing only works if activated before conflicts occur. Bears can go through electric fencing once they are food-conditioned and know food is available.

If you come in close   contact with a bear:

  • Stay calm and avoid direct eye contact, which could elicit a charge. Try to stay upwind and identify yourself as a human by standing up, talking and waving your hands above your head.
  • Do not approach the bear, particularly if you see cubs, and give the bear plenty of room. Increase your distance from the bear, even if it appears unconcerned.
  • If you cannot safely move away from the bear, and the animal does not flee, try clapping your hands or yelling to scare the animal.
  • If the black bear cannot be deterred and is intent on attack, fall as close to the ground as possible before the bear makes contact and play dead.
  • If the bear attacks, fight back aggressively. Use a deterrent, such as pepper spray or a stick, and fight for your life. Kick, punch or hit the bear with whatever weapon is available. Concentrate your attack on the face, eyes and nose. Fight any black bear that attacks you in a building or tent.

Sources: Department of Fish and Wildlife, Grizzly Bear Outreach Project

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One Response to “Encounter at Issaquah school offers bear safety reminder”

  1. Matt on October 17th, 2012 11:14 am

    “If the black bear cannot be deterred and is intent on attack, … play dead.”
    “If the bear attacks, fight back aggressively.”

    Uh, so which one is it?

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