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Last updated 1:03AM ET
September 22, 2018
WFCR Local News
WFCR Local News
What's the Best Way to Deal with Hungry Bears?
(OPB) - (Oregon Considered) - Black bears in Oregon damage and kill thousands of trees each year that are supposed to end up in timber mills. The damage happens in early spring when the bears come out of hibernation. Private landowners and government agencies have programs in place to limit bear damage to trees.

As part of those programs, about 120 bears are killed each spring. The federal agency responsible for monitoring bear control is conducting an environmental assessment. That's giving animal protection groups an opportunity to weigh in on the program.

The damage is caused by hungry bears on the west side of the Cascade Mountains looking for some quick energy. Dave Williams is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services.

Dave Williams: When bears come out of hibernation they begin to look for things to forage on. And one of the effects of growing trees quickly they generate a lot of carbohydrate and sugars under the bark.

Fast growing trees are most commonly found on industrial timber plantations where most of the trees are about the same age. To a hungry bear, these places look like a candy store.

In an effort to get down to the sugary sap, the bears tear off the tree's bark. Sometimes they tear off just a little bark and the tree heals over. Other times they tear off all the bark, killing the tree. Either way, the tree is worth less or maybe nothing at all to timber companies.

Yearly damage estimates in Oregon range from five to more than $11 million. Most of the severe damage takes place on private lands. Dave Williams says the damage is not spread evenly across all landowners.

Dave Williams: You might spend a lot of time in a tree stand and not really see any bear damage but then you might happen on another stand where in excess of 70% of the stand is destroyed by bears.

Williams says part of the problem is there are more bears in the woods than there used to be.

Dave Williams: And so over the years, our bear populations or densities have grown to maybe as high as two to three bears per square mile, whereas previously the average for bear habitat might be .9 or so bears per square mile.

In recent years, as the problem has gotten worse, landowners have turned to the government for help in controlling the bears. Federal policy calls for attempting non-lethal methods of getting rid of bears first. That may include having a couple of people tromp around in the woods in an effort to scare off the animals, but it never includes transporting bears to another area.

Experts say that doesn't work because the bears just come back or they start munching on trees in their new home. Problem bears that persist in damaging trees are generally caught in leg traps and then shot. An average of 119 bears are killed each year in Western Oregon.

OPB contacted the largest private timberland owner in Western Oregon, Weyerhaeuser, which confirmed bear damage is a problem. But for specifics, the company referred OPB to the Oregon Forest Industries Council, a trade group. There, Mike Dykzeul manages the group's animal damage program.

He says that when a bear is killed, it's done in the most humane way possible. While some people may not like the idea of landowners destroying bears, Dykzeul points out they have a legal right to do so.

Mike Dykzeul: It's a landowner's right to control damage by whatever means they feel appropriate once they can confirm damage does exist.

Environmental and Animal protection groups have formed a coalition to monitor the current assessment of the bear control program. Brenna Bell is an attorney with the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Southern Oregon.

Brenna Bell: Large predators have basically been our scapegoats for everything since we migrated out West, as a species. And they're still continuing to get the brunt of everything. But that's not as okay as it used to be. People are waking up to the fact that they have a very important place in our ecosystem.

The USDA's Wildlife Services says it's currently conducting an environmental assessment of the bear control program because it's time for a reexamination. But Bell isn't so sure.

Brenna Bell: Those of us who are a little bit more skeptical think that they are starting to really realize how the public is turning against wanton predator killing especially predator killing for the private profit of a few individuals.

Mike Dykzeul with the Oregon Forest Industry Council says the public has nothing to worry about because the program is highly regulated and carried out responsibly.

Mike Dykzeul: There is no effort to try and eliminate all bears from a specific area. Everyone is focusing specifically on where current damage is occurring and those control efforts are pretty much focused on the individuals that are causing the problem.

Dykzeul says it's also important to know that landowners pay for most of the cost of the program; taxpayers pick up only about 15% of the bill. Still, environmental and animal protection groups are closely examining the government's Environmental Assessment of the bear control program to ensure it complies with federal law.

The USDA is accepting public comments on the plan through Valentine's Day. The agency has offered several alternatives to the current plan including a ban on killing bears that damage timber and requiring landowners to try non-lethal means of controlling bears first. Both the USDA and the timber industry recommend sticking with the current program.
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