Hungry Bears Plaguing Towns From Coast to Coast

"Once they get people food, they don't want to go anywhere else," official says.

September 04, 2010, 10:34 PM

Sept. 5, 2010— -- Bears know what they want and know where to get it and increasingly that's getting them in trouble.

From California and Colorado to New Jersey and Florida, bears are coming out of the woods and finding their way into people's cars, campsites and homes looking for food.

"Once they get people food, they don't want to go anywhere else," California Department of Fish and Game spokesman Jason Holley told ABC San Francisco station KGO-TV this week after Fish and Game officers euthanized a mother black bear that had been hanging around a campground in the Tahoe Basin.

The incidents with the bear escalated until it took a swipe at a man and injured his arm. The bear ran off, but was later identified from DNA that it left on a yogurt cup at the campsite, according to KGO.

The bear's cub was also caught, but Fish and Game officials have not yet decided what actions to take.

The attack was the most recent in a summer that has seen a rash of bear break-ins and confrontations in the Tahoe area.

"We've had nine or ten of the same sort of calls where a bear has made harmful contact with a person," Holley said.

In a normal summer, he told KGO, they would get one or two calls.

While Fish and Game officials say the killing of the problem bear could make the Labor Day weekend a little safer for visitors, some people said they feel for the bears, too.

"We're invading them and I just think it's a shame they did that," Catherine Lutz, who is spending the weekend in the area with her family, told KGO.

That's a view shared by animal rights groups, who say that people need to take responsibility by making sure that food is not left out where bears can be tempted.

"You have to keep that locked up, you have to keep that in a way that's bear-proof because otherwise, your desire to be in nature and be among these kinds of animals could lead to this tragic situation," Humane Society spokeswoman Jennifer Fearing told KGO.

The story is similar in Colorado Springs, Colo., where this past week state wildlife officials killed six black bears -- two mothers, each with two cubs -- that broke into two different homes.

In both cases, when officers arrived, the cubs were inside the house rummaging for food while the mother was outside, keeping watch.

As in Tahoe, some people in Colorado criticized the state Division of Wildlife for killing the bears rather than simply moving them out of the area, but wildlife officials said that relocating the problem bruins doesn't work.

"We can only relocate bears into bear habitat," Division of Wildlife spokesman Michael Seraphin said, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.

That creates a problem, he told the newspaper, because in Colorado at least, the areas that are bear habitat and the areas where people live "are almost exactly identical."

And as wildlife officials throughout the country know, once a bear has acquired a taste for the food people eat and learned how to get in houses, it most likely won't stop.

"More often than not, when bears start entering homes, history has shown they will continue that behavior," he said.

Zoos don't want black bears, because they are not as popular as grizzlies, and transporting them deep into wilderness areas far from humans is impractical, Seraphin said.

While the high number of incidents of aggressive bears across the West this summer may be troubling, Seraphin said it could be related to the weather and not necessarily a sign that things will keep getting worse.

Because the winter was dry and there was little rain in the early spring, many of the plants that bears rely on for food did not grow well this year.

With less of the food they normally eat, bears had to look for other options, and some turned to trash cans, houses and picnic sites, Seraphin said.

Add to that the fact that a hungry bear is an aggressive bear, and you have an increased chance of frightening confrontations.

Colorado has a two-strike policy for bears, giving them a second chance if they are found once creating a nuisance. On a first offense the bear is tagged, and only if it is caught again is it killed.

However, bears that exhibit exceptional behavior such as breaking into a house are considered an immediate danger and in most cases would be killed without a second chance.

In addition to the targeted killing of problem bears, Colorado hunters shoot approximately 900 bears a year, which is another of the state's management tools for controlling the bear population.

That's a tactic that has been used in New Jersey, as well. Earlier this summer the state decided to reinstitute its controversial bear hunting program.

The most densely populated state in the country has had two previous bear hunts -- in 2003, when 328 were killed, and 2005, when hunters got 298.

The bear population has been growing there, and there has been a corresponding rise in confrontations between bears and humans, Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said when he announced this year's hunt.

The six-day hunt is scheduled to begin Dec. 6, he said.

Wildlife officials in Florida are also considering allowing bear hunting, which has been banned in the state since 1994, as part of a comprehensive plan to deal with the growing bear population there.

The problem is particularly acute around Ocala National Forest, north of Orlando. People in communities around the forest have seen a rise in bear incidents, and one black bear was even caught swimming in the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando.

While hunting is still only a possibility, the draft plan calls for educating people about how to make their homes bear-proof and establishing corridors to allow bears to move from one habitat to another with minimal human contact.

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