Poor wild berry crop brings hungry bears into close proximity with humans in Western states
BOISE, Idaho — Without their usual diet of berries and nuts as hibernation approaches, mama, papa and baby bears in the West are turning to cars and cabins and finding the leftovers are juuuust right.
Huckleberries, nuts and pine cones are in short supply this year because of poor growing conditions, so bears have taken to breaking into cars, nosing around backyards and raiding orchards.
And as happens when bears roam into towns, they end up trapped or dead. In New Mexico, 83 bears have been killed so far this year, more than three times as many as last year.
It's all got wildlife officials from the Pacific Northwest down to New Mexico advising people to put away bird feed, stow trash and keep any other smelly objects under wraps.
"They're going to be searching for food. Don't give them a freebie," said Rich Beausoleil, bear and cougar specialist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The warnings come after a Michigan man was killed and two others injured when an undernourished grizzly and her three cubs marauded through a crowded campground in Yellowstone National Park near Cooke City, Mont., on July 28. The mother bear was euthanized, and the cubs were taken to a sanctuary, skinny and still wearing their ragged winter coats.
A month earlier, a botanist in Wyoming was killed by a bear shortly after the animal woke up from being tranquilized by researchers.
A cool, wet spring across much of the region initially stunted development of grasses and wildflowers, which bears eat early in the season. The weather also dented the northern Rockies' huckleberry crop -- the main food for bears in mid-to-late summer.
"We're getting people with cabins broken into," said Jim Hayden, Idaho Department of Fish and Game's regional wildlife manager. "Some of our officers are getting multiple calls per day. They can't keep up with them at all."
In New Mexico, for example, the bears killed so far came in run-ins with humans or livestock attacks, said Dan Williams, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
"We've had to trap more bears this year and we've had to kill more bears this year than any year since 2002," he said.
Washington's Beausoleil said his agency has placed 14 orphaned black bear cubs with rehabilitation centers, many because their mothers were shot when somebody felt threatened.
This past week in southwest Montana, five bears were relocated and one was euthanized.
In Oregon, a cold, damp spring either delayed ripening or caused complete failure of the berry crop in some areas, officials said.
Colorado, so far, has proved to be an all-you-can-eat buffet -- supplies of berries are plentiful. And as a result, there have been fewer encounters with the hungry bears, officials said.
Kerry Gunther, bear management biologist for Yellowstone, said the bears he's seen have been in good shape, already building up a thick layer of fat.
Still, biologists said the poor huckleberry crop in some areas could have consequences, especially for female bears that don't bulk up sufficiently on summer and fall food.
Embryos in undernourished females are less likely to develop, so there could be fewer cubs born next spring.
In the meantime, they continue to hunt for food. They may turn up again in the north central Washington orchard where bears were found munching on apples, or near Gardiner, Mont., where one got stuck inside a van when the door slid shut.
-- John Miller, Associated Press
Photo: A black bear in a tree in Medford, Ore., in January. Credit: Roy Musitelli / Associated Press