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Bear Problem? Let’s Talk Some Trash : Outdoors: Unfortunately, once the animal gets accustomed to eating garbage it often has to be destroyed because it becomes too much of a danger to people.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first bear to wander out of the woods went right for the container of grape juice. Using both paws and a long tongue, it sopped up every drop.

The second, a larger animal, strolled past the first and scored a loaf of sandwich bread. Despite the mold, the bear ate every slice.

Soon, a dozen bears, large and small, were rummaging through the Happy Camp dump, helping themselves to chicken bones, mayonnaise, peanut butter and anything else the people of Happy Camp had thrown their way.

“The only reason they’re here is because there’s food here,” said Jake Bushey Sr., a Department of Fish and Game warden whose territory includes the vast wilderness surrounding this small community near the Oregon border. “I mean, they have such an incredible nose.”

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Bushey brought a reporter here to illustrate that, and to point out that black bears, when they get a taste for human food, come to rely on it as part of their diet.

The more they come to rely on it, the less shy they become. Given that a black bear can weigh 600 pounds and is powerful enough to kill a human with an innocent swipe of its paw, that can lead to dangerous situations.

Here in Happy Camp, in the middle of bear country, people wonder how the bears will react next spring, when they awake from hibernation and find the dump closed.

Citing environmental concerns, such as the leaking of waste into the soil and the dump’s use as an artificial and non-nutritious food source for hundreds of bears, state officials have tentatively scheduled the closure of the 500-acre facility next winter.

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“You’ve got a population of bears that is established because of that food source,” said Tim Burton, a Siskiyou County wildlife biologist with the DFG. “You’ve got an artificially high density, an artificially large number of animals. That food source is going to go away, and there’s going to be some changes in the way business is done in the bear community and, ultimately, those populations will get back to a static level in keeping with what the habitat is.”

Meanwhile, there are concerns that the bears, to get their junk food fixes, will overrun Happy Camp, already accustomed to visitation by the opportunistic animals.

“If I leave garbage out, I got a bear in my garbage every night,” Bushey said. “What happens is, they come in here and paw around and eat all that . . . and next thing you know, they get done here, go by other people’s houses and anybody who has anything to eat, they’re in it. If you leave cat food out, dog food out. . . . We got a couple chickens; they got in my chicken feed. They packed my garbage cans up the hill. So what you have to do is use common sense.”

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Bears are a hot topic, not only here but throughout California as intrusions into urban and rural areas are being reported at a far brisker pace.

Even in Southern California, which supports only about 5% of the estimated 17,000 to 23,000 black bears in the state, the animals have surfaced recently in densely populated neighborhoods in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

Biologists say several natural factors are partially responsible. One is the recent long-lasting winter-like conditions, which have left the higher-elevation meadows that bears graze in covered with snow. Also, in many areas, the nuts and berries bears feed on have yet to ripen.

Additionally, the bear population in the past few years--particularly since the end of the drought two years ago--has increased by about 5,000. Moreover, this is the time of year young bears are pushed out to live on their own and, in the words of one biologist, “the young ones are the dumb ones” and the ones that usually end up in neighborhoods looking for food.

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However, the human factor cannot be ignored.

“It’s really a people problem,” said Don Koch, a Redding-based bear expert with the DFG. “We don’t have a bear problem in this state that I’m aware of.”

Koch means that bears wouldn’t be rummaging through the streets so often if people would take steps to keep the animals out of their neighborhoods. That means keeping garbage, pet food and human food safely secured.

“The bear is an extremely intelligent animal, and it learns quickly,” Koch said. “If you start providing them with a food source that’s easily obtainable and it tastes good, then they’ll become one of you.”

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And habituated bears apparently will stop at nothing to get to that food. Surely, they have developed creative ways to take food from humans.

Burton knows of one bear that used to stake out a remote trail frequented by campers traveling with pack mules.

“The bear situated himself near a particularly precipitous stretch of the trail, and when a pack train came along, he would charge the mules and make them run,” Burton said. “Packs, food, supplies--you name it--would drop and roll to the bottom of the canyon. Then the bear would go down and have a feast.”

Bob Stafford, statewide coordinator of the DFG’s black bear program, once received a report of a bear that struck a food bonanza after breaking into a Volkswagen van. “For the rest of that summer, the bear only broke into Volkswagen vans,” he said. “All it took was one reward for the bear to forever associate Volkswagens with food.”

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While unprovoked attacks by black bears on humans are extremely rare, Stafford said, a bear will sometimes “bluff charge” people carrying packs. The people get scared, drop the packs and the bear has the packs.

“The mother will even teach her cubs that trick,” Stafford said. “Then you have a 20- or 30-pound animal trying it. Of course, it doesn’t work as well.”

Karen Kovacs, a DFG biologist based in the Northern California coastal town of Eureka, said bears have even learned to associate ice chests with food and will go from car to car, peeking through the windows looking for the containers.

“It’s funny because they’ll look through the window and see an ice chest, and they can rip a car door off if they’re so inclined,” Kovacs said. “And others with no ice chests, they’ll leave alone.”

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Cute as that seems, such bears must eventually pay the ultimate price and be destroyed.

Only two weeks ago in a small community north of Eureka, a 2-year-old, 100-pound bear was killed by wildlife officials after an almost comical incident on Highway 1.

“This bear had associated people with food, and it became conditioned to getting direct handouts,” Kovacs said. “It started to appear adjacent to the highway, then on the highway and then in the highway. This is tourist season. People see a bear and they’re going to stop, or pull over and take pictures. Tourists were feeding the bear, and there was ample evidence that it had escalated to the point where it was a traffic hazard.”

The Highway Patrol arrived and found the bear standing with its paws against a motor home. The DFG arrived and determined that the bear had crossed a “psychological” line and should be destroyed.

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The CHP attempted to run a traffic break to let the biologists work, but just then dozens of German cyclists came roaring down the highway, spooking the bear into the woods. It was eventually located, however, and killed.

“People think bears are neat and groovy and they like to feed them, but the problem is, now that is a dead bear,” Kovacs said. “It was not doing what a bear is supposed to do. It was not afraid of people, and not living in a natural environment.”

Relocating the bear, she said, was not a viable alternative because chances are it would have either returned to the highway or looked for handouts elsewhere. Additionally, she said, because the local mountains are “saturated” with bears, it would probably have either been forced out of the area by an adult bear guarding its territory or killed by the larger bear.

The DFG will only relocate bears if they appear not to have become habituated. Often, bears wander down a corridor of habitat and find themselves in the civilized world. Such is usually the case in densely-populated Southern California, anyway.

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If a bear returns often and becomes a threat to public safety, it is killed. Fortunately, only a few must be dealt with that way each year. In rural areas, however, if a bear becomes a nuisance and a threat to property, a depredation permit is issued to landowners, who must destroy the animal.

That “get tough policy” is aimed at making landowners take the necessary measures to keep bears out. Last year, 148 permits were issued, resulting in the deaths of 51 bears. This year, at least as many permits are expected to be issued.

“The only thing we can do with a bear that becomes a problem is to issue a kill permit,” Bushey said. “And our permit process asks what steps have been taken to prevent this damage. We won’t issue a permit for garbage [bears]. We won’t allow somebody to destroy a bear because it’s getting into something they’re going to throw away.”


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