Sunday, July 21, 2024

Human and Black Bear interactions are persistent in Leavenworth. What will change it?

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LEAVENWORTH – In the past five years, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has received over 150 calls about black bears from Leavenworth alone. While bear populations haven’t increased in the last few years, human and bear interactions have. 

To better understand the area’s population and behavior, Rich Beausoleil, a carnivore specialist for WDFW, worked on a ten-year research project tracking bears between 2013 and 2023. According to Beausoleil, approximately 250 black bears live between just north of Blewett Pass and the Lake Wenatchee area. However, only a handful reside in Leavenworth. 

“In the time that we did that 10-year research project, there was no population increase or really a decrease over those 10 years. It was very, very consistent,” said Beausoleil. “They kind of distribute themselves on the landscape, like little puzzle pieces, and they get replaced when animals die. They don't have these wild fluctuations in population size or density.”

During the study, Beausoleil observed that most bears spend their entire lives in the mountains. They come to Leavenworth to take advantage of the attractants for about two to three weeks and then leave. Many do not return for the rest of the year. Whether they arrive in early spring or late fall often varies by age class.

While bear population size doesn’t fluctuate as dramatically as high-density species such as deer or grouse, Beausoleil says human-bear conflicts do fluctuate due to environmental factors. For instance, a wet and cold spring can limit berry supply, driving bears to seek out other options, such as a town full of attractants. Human attractants are also more efficient, with a pound of birdseed providing 1,700 calories, compared to only 600 calories from a pound of blueberries.

"Black bear activity in the Leavenworth area is cyclical, and it is related to a combination of natural food supply and the amount of attractants on the landscape such as trash, compost, and birdseed. With an increase in the amount of yearly visitors to Leavenworth, attractants can also increase. It is a human-caused issue and preventable by securing or removing attractants," said Beausoleil.

Beausoleil ranks Leavenworth as one of the top three locations in the state that experiences constant problems with human-bear conflict. In order to reverse this, Beausoleil says the most important move is to limit attractants. 

“What you want is bears to move through and not stay, but people are giving bears a reason to stay, because they're rewarding them with the calories,” said Beausoleil.

While Beausoleil believes that change can happen through individual action, such as learning how to limit attractants at home and reporting bear sightings, he sees long-term change occurring at the city level. 

Last fall, the City of Leavenworth took steps in that direction, announcing it was partnering with WDFW to become a BearWise® community. This would limit negative human-bear interactions and keep black bears from habituating within town.

Under the initiative, WDFW invested $10,000 in custom BearWise® educational materials, Defenders of Wildlife invested $15,000 and purchased 30 bear-resistant cans for Cascade School District, and Conservations Northwest is donating two bear-resistant dumpsters to Leavenworth Ski Hill this summer. 

“Right now, the city is focusing on sort of this outreach effort and education regarding BearWise® resources and education and techniques,” said Kara Raftery, Communications and Special Projects Manager for the city. 

The city has been promoting BearWise® strategies for residents to implement, such as removing bird feeders and pet food from outside, cleaning grills, and securing garbage. The Chamber of Commerce has also been working on a smart destination campaign in order to bring bear education to tourists. 

However, Beausoleil believes the city still has a long way to go. To him, increasing bear-proof totes for residential and commercial waste, as well as adopting an ordinance to limit attractants are necessary for the city’s improvement.

In regard to bear-proof garbage totes, the city has been working with Waste Management to encourage residents to opt in for a bear-proof garbage tote, which incurs an additional $14.71 fee per month.

In the commercial zone, the city installed 55 bear-resistant bins for pedestrian use throughout the downtown core.

However, the city is still facing challenges with implementing bear-proof garbage totes for commercial businesses, which is managed through Public Works. Most businesses downtown utilize 300-gallon totes, some of which receive daily service. There is not a viable 300-gallon bear-proof tote currently on the market.

“The biggest struggle is right now, there are some commercial entities that are using the bear-proof totes, but they're 96-gallons, so they have to have more of them, and space is limited,” said Raftery.

According to Raftery, the City Council will be also reviewing ordinance examples and defining its own parameters in the next few months. However, she anticipates hurdles.

“How can we require commercial accounts to be BearWise® if we don't have 300-gallon bear-proof totes? There's just some things that we have to work out, [so] whatever we put into code is viable…Same with residents, maybe not everyone can afford the extra fees for a bear-proof container from Waste Management, so do we allow them to do the bear-proof tote or have another option? Or does the city look into other options to support that effort?” said Raftery.

Tips and resources on how to reduce bear activity at home can be found at bearwise.org.

Taylor Caldwell: 509-433-7276 or taylor@ward.media

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