Searching for food during an abnormally dry spring, two black bears have wandered into the backyards of Spokane Valley homes in the past week.
Part of that attraction? Food left out by good-intentioned homeowners, according to state biologists.
“The forage quality, or at least that’s what we’re thinking, is less than ideal,” said Kile Westerman, a wildlife conflict specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“So the bears are a little harder up for resources this time of year. And they’re out searching farther and getting into more urban areas.”
The encounters exemplify a particular problem for wildlife managers in Washington: It’s legal in most of Washington to feed deer and other wildlife. It’s not legal, however, to feed large carnivores like bears. But food is food and a hungry bear isn’t likely to turn its nose up at apples intended for a deer.
That has prompted two Spokane-city lawmakers to begin advocating for a statewide ban on wildlife feeding.
“As wildlife becomes more crowded out of its native habitat and (there are) more incidents of wildlife and people interacting, we really do need a solution,” Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said.
Last year, Kinnear and Councilwoman Candace Mumm considered introducing a city ordinance to ban wildlife feeding. After examining the issue, however, Kinnear said they ran into too many roadblocks — enforcement being a big one — and decided it would be best dealt with at a statewide level.
Now they’re planning to add a statewide wildlife feeding ban to the city’s Washington state legislative wish list. When the Washington Legislature starts its 2022 session, Spokane’s representative will advocate for some sort of wildlife feeding ban.
“It should be dealt with statewide,” she said.
Most cities and municipalities in Washington don’t have wildlife feeding bans, although Bellingham banned the intentional feeding of deer in 2017.
“Especially in cities and highly urbanized areas, I think a no feeding wildlife ordinance would be beneficial,” Westerman said. “Not only for situations like this but in general disease transmission. Getting wildlife habituated to people, that makes wildlife not wild. They start to become domesticated.”
Of particular concern for wildlife managers is the spread of chronic wasting disease. The debilitating neurological disease that impacts ungulates is believed to have emerged in Colorado at elk feeding sites in the 1960s.
Although it’s not been documented in Washington or Idaho, it has crept to within 20 miles of the Idaho Panhandle. For that reason, the WDFW commission has considered banning baiting deer, commissioner Kim Thorburn from Spokane said.
As for a statewide ban on feeding wildlife, Thorburn is skeptical.
“I think it would be politically challenging,” she said.
Instead, Thorburn believes that bans should be left to local jurisdictions.
Marie Neumiller, the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council’s executive director, broadly supports any effort to reduce wildlife feeding, but said the details of a statewide ban would have to be clearly articulated.
“I think it could be a beneficial piece,” she said. “But I would want to make sure it’s well done and well-coordinated with WDFW.”
The bear sightings last week in Spokane Valley were accompanied by other sightings across the region and state, WDFW spokeswoman Staci Lehman said. During that period, agency conflict specialists responded to two bear calls in Northeast Washington.
Although it’s too soon to say whether there are more bear-human interactions this spring than last, Lehman said the timing is earlier.
“Last year, we had repeated reports of bears in a couple neighborhoods in Northeast Washington, but that was later in the summer and went on for a while because they were being drawn in by unmanaged garbage,” Lehman said in an email.
“That’s what we are trying to prevent this year. We would like to address some of these situations now so the bears don’t hang around and have the potential to get more comfortable with humans, or potentially more aggressive, as the summer goes on.”
That’s a point WDFW staff emphasis: While the weather plays a factor, humans are largely to blame.
Good-intentioned attempts at feeding wildlife — whether its deer, squirrels or birds — can inadvertently attract black bears. Unsecured garbage, dirty grills or other attractants further incentivize hungry ursines.
Instead, folks should secure garbage in locked sheds, clean grills and consider not feeding wildlife.
“Whether you’re feeding deer, turkey, squirrels or whatever, it’s not advised,” Westerman said. “(Bears) are also really adept at getting into bird feeders.”
As humans have expanded our footprint, moving into formerly agricultural or rural lands, the urban-rural divide has blurred and some highly adaptive species have flourished on lawn clippings, ornamental flowers, bird seed, garbage and other human-provided foods.
Similar issues are popping up around the Western U.S. Bears and cougars, once nearly hunted, poisoned and trapped to extinction, are making a comeback and finding, in many cases, that scavenging food from humans is an easier way to make a living.
At the same time, many American are moving out of cities, intentionally looking for a more rural way of life. Having deer, turkeys or even the occasional bear hanging around the backyard can be a thrilling perk, albeit one that can quickly sour. Bears, habituated to human-provided food, can become aggressive, which often ends in the death of the bear.
“They get dependent on that food,” Westerman said. “That doesn’t always end good for people or the bear.”
Roughly 90% of human-bear conflicts result from bears associating food with humans, according to WDFW.
The same holds true for other carnivores. In Northeast Washington, much of that conflict involves cougars. WDFW killed 99 cougars statewide and 69 in Region 1 (Spokane area) last year. This year, WDFW has killed 23 cougars statewide and 10 in Region 1.
A ban on wildlife feeding wouldn’t eliminate all human-wildlife conflict, but it would be a step in the right direction, Westerman said.