Trapped bear

Pacific County black bears that are fed — accidentally or on purpose — become overly habituated to humans, putting both species in danger. They are often trapped, hauled out of neighborhoods, and killed. This Ilwaco bear found itself in this situation last summer, just down the hill from Doris Parks’ house.

LONG BEACH — It took six jurors just 30 minutes of deliberation in court last week to find an Ilwaco woman guilty of intentionally feeding black bears.

Doris Parks, 77, of Ilwaco’s Sahalee neighborhood, was found guilty in South District Court on May 20 for intentionally feeding, or attempting to feed, large wild carnivores or intentionally attracting large wild carnivores to land or a building. From jury selection to Parks’ conviction, the trial took less than seven hours to wrap up.

The case is a win for Pacific County prosecutors and Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife officials, who hope that Parks’ conviction will help deter other would-be feeders from treating the large animals as pets. The misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. Parks is expected to be sentenced sometime next month.

For Parks, it’s not the first time she’s had a run in with the law. She was tried on the same charge in October 2014, after WDFW — represented by then-Pacific County Deputy Prosecutor Donald Richter — alleged Parks habitually fed bears in the spring and fall, which they said caused a dense population of dangerous semi-domesticated bears to develop in the neighborhood.

After five hours of testimony at that trial, her lawyer at the time struck a last-minute deal with the prosecution, which ordered that the charge would be dropped if Parks paid a $500 fine and refrained from feeding any wild animals for the next two years. Parks appeared to adhere to the terms of the order, according to neighbors, until recently.

WDFW officer testifies

Pacific County Deputy Prosecutor Jonathan Dumais called four witnesses to the stand during the trial, including Paul Jacobson, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officer who led the investigation into Parks last year.

Jacobson testified that he received an email from one of Parks’ neighbors, Gerry Douglas, on June 20, 2020, who said he had security camera video of bears that appeared to be coming and going from Parks’ property throughout the past several months.

Jacobson conducted surveillance on Parks’ property in response to Douglas’ email, and said he saw up to five bears a day coming and going from the property, along with animals such as raccoons that Parks is legally allowed to feed. That included three bears that appeared to be very large and overfed, which he said was unnatural for wild bears. He also called it unusual to see such a large number of bears converging upon a single residence.

Parks’ attorney, Aberdeen-based lawyer Killian Dunkeson, asked Jacobson whether the bears could have been using Parks’ property as a through-access, but Jacobson said he didn’t believe that was possible due to how the property was situated. He also noted that he once observed a bear walk up Parks’ driveway and onto her deck.

Jacobson said that he never personally saw Parks feeding bears during the times he conducted surveillance on her property, but that the bears he observed were obviously obese and not due to wild food. But he conceded that it doesn’t mean someone was intentionally feeding them.

On a June 29 visit with Parks on her property, Jacobson said that Parks denied purposely feeding the bears, but told him that she knew her feeding activities for raccoons were attracting bears. Jacobson said he also talked with Parks’ cousin, Kurt Schmid, 79, who lives with Parks. Schmid, Jacobson said, told him that Parks was still feeding the bears and that he told her to stop, but that she refused and said she is her own person and does what she wants.

Neighbor takes the stand

Douglas, Parks’ neighbor, was the second witness called to testify by the prosecution.

After buying his property in 2015, Douglas said he probably observed just a few bears throughout an entire year in those first couple of years. That changed in 2019, he said, when the bears began to show up more frequently, and came to a head last spring, when he said it seemed like the bears were coming every day.

Douglas testified that he observed bears going onto Parks’ property, and that he could even see them going onto the deck. Between December 2019 and June 2020, he estimated that he saw between 5 to 8 bears go onto her property.

Dunkeson questioned Douglas over whether he had ever witnessed Parks feeding bears, or if he had only just seen bears head onto her property.

“I have seen the door open up there, on the patio, and I have seen a hand with food slide out,” Douglas testified.

The prosecution submitted into evidence Douglas’ security camera videos that appeared to show bears coming and going from Parks’ residence. Douglas said he had about 60 to 70 clips that captured bears on video, and said they represented only a fraction of how often they come and go.

Before the video clips were shown to the jury, Dunkeson objected and argued to Judge Nancy McAllister that the videos were overly prejudicial and shouldn’t be admissible in court because they don’t actually show the bears going onto Parks’ property. After dismissing the jury so she could view the videos herself, McAllister denied the defense’s objection and allowed the jury to view the videos.

Cousin offers differing account

The third person called to testify by the prosecution was Schmid, Parks’ cousin who has lived with her at the property for about 20 years.

Schmid said he is aware of bears coming around the property, but added they’re “everywhere, not just there.” He testified that Parks doesn’t feed the bears, and that she only puts out bird seed for birds and dog food for raccoons and that there is none left over for any visiting bears.

Schmid’s testimony directly conflicted with what Jacobson said Schmid told him last June when he visited the residence. In fact, Schmid testified he didn’t even recall speaking with Jacobson in the first place, and said reading Jacobson’s report of their conversation wouldn’t refresh his memory. He said he cares about Parks and doesn’t want to see her get in trouble.

Jacobson was recalled to the stand after Schmid’s testimony, and again testified about the events from last June. He said Schmid was separated from Parks when he talked to him outside of the residence, and again testified that Schmid told him Parks was feeding bears and that he asked her to stop. Schmid, Jacobson testified, indicated to him that he feared jeopardizing his living arrangements.

Wildlife biologist provides insight

The trial resumed after a lunch recess, with the prosecution calling its fourth and final witness: Scott Harris, a wildlife biologist with WDFW who deals with private landowners and wildlife conflict, including human-wildlife conflicts such as crop and property damage and public safety and enforcement issues.

Harris said he has black bear-specific training, which includes annual trainings and meetings that are centered around recent science regarding the bears’ habituation and eating habits. He testified that he’s had experiences with black bears in Pacific County, and is familiar with their social behavior and diets.

Based on Jacobson’s report and Douglas’ videos, Harris said the bears in the video clips clearly have access to a very concentrated and unnatural food source — more than just garbage cans that they were able to break into. Unnatural food sources include human processed foods, or pet food.

While some of the bears observed in the videos looked OK, Harris said others looked “huge” for it only being springtime, since bears lose about 30 to 40% of their weight during hibernation in the winter and don’t really start to pack on a lot of weight until summer.

“They’ve obviously been getting a very high-calorie diet,” Harris testified.

He also said that it’s unusual for bears to be that concentrated in one location, “unless there’s a concentrated food source … It’s not normal, not in that density and that smaller area.” He said bears naturally move on from their roaming area after a short period of time, and that he was “kind of amazed” that the same bears in the videos kept coming back to the same place over a period of several months.

Dunkeson asked Harris if the presence of an unnatural food source is indicative that someone is purposely feeding bears. Harris said it was.

“If bears are going there and eating that, then they’re feeding them,” he said.

Harris testified that just because the bears seen in Douglas’ video were seen going toward Parks’ property doesn’t necessarily mean they were heading to a food source. But for some of the bears seen in the videos to get to such a large state that they were in, he said it’s usually because someone is intentionally feeding them, and that bears with access to unnatural food sources tend to be larger.

Parks denies wrongdoing

The last witness to take the stand during the trial was Parks, and was the defense’s sole witness.

Parks testified that bears have been active by her house off-and-on since she first moved there 21 years ago. She said that she only feeds raccoons and birds, and feeds them dog food and bird seed, respectively, noting that the raccoons “have very good manners.” While saying some bird seed does fall onto her deck, she said doesn’t know which animals come and eat the fallen seed.

Unlike Schmid, Parks said she did believe she talked to Jacobson last year, but testified that she doesn’t remember telling him that she knew her feeding activities were attracting bears. She estimated that only a couple of tablespoons of bird seed at most fall onto her deck.

“I am not afraid of bears. You have to be a little cautious, but I have never seen a bear hurt anyone,” Parks said.

Closing arguments

During closing arguments, Dumais told the jury that this was a case about common sense.

He cited Harris’ testimony about bears being attracted to large, unnatural food sources, as well as how it was unusual for bears not to move on from a roaming area after a period of time. He cited Douglas’ videos that showed many bears in the neighborhood, compared to what he observed several years earlier.

Dumais also cited Jacobson’s testimony that Schmid told him Parks intentionally fed bears, as well as his testimony that Parks told him that she knew her feeding of birds and raccoons attracted bears. He focused on the fact that even if Parks wasn’t intentionally feeding bears, her acknowledgement — according to Jacobson’s testimony — that she knew her feeding habits attracted them to her residence was enough to convict.

During his closing argument, Dunkeson honed in on the argument that the prosecution wasn’t able to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Parks was intentionally feeding the bears. He cited Parks’ testimony that she doesn’t feed bears, as well as Schmid’s testimony.

He said it would be financially unfeasible for Parks to buy enough bird seed that is needed for the bears seen in the video to be sustained at such large weights. Dunkeson also cited Douglas’ testimony that he wasn’t always at his property when the security camera videos were taken, as well as Harris’ testimony that he was unable to tell exactly how many individual bears were in the video.

In the end, the jury quickly sided with the prosecution.

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