Long Beach wrestles with bear management

A tranquilized bear's grasp on a tree in Safari RV Park was loosened by a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officer last year in preparation for relocation to a less-populated area.

LONG BEACH — Mayor Bob Andrew recently held a meeting with wildlife managers and local officials to discuss strategies for preventing human-bear encounters inside city limits.

Despite wildlife managers’ well-publicized efforts to relocate or kill “problem bears” over the last two years, Long Beach Police Department log entries show that the animals continue to make forays into Ilwaco and Long Beach. Long Beach police have recorded 10 bear-related log entries in 2015 and a total of about 50 since Jan. 1, 2014. These records also show that cutting off access to garbage would prevent the majority of bear-related incidents.

Councilman (and mayoral candidate) Jerry Phillips said in a phone interview that the May 7 meeting was initiated at the request of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. In attendance were Long Beach Police Chief Flint Wright, representatives from Peninsula Sanitation, WDFW Deputy Chief Mike Cenci and other WDFW staff.

The meeting was not an official city workshop and other city council members were not invited — some said they did not even know about the meeting until it had happened. Phillips said he was invited to attend because he is the president of the Merchants’ Association. Andrew did not respond to email and phone message requests for comment last week.

Phillips said local WDFW staff wanted to hear suggestions from city leaders about how to discourage contact between bears and humans. During the meeting, WDFW staff said strategies that prevent bear encounters are much more effective than trapping, killing or relocating. Those methods have removed a few particularly aggressive bears, but they are costly, labor-intensive tactics that don’t address the root causes of the problem.

“The common thread is trash. How do we control our trash?” Phillips said. He has been researching methods that Alaska communities have used to keep bears away from garbage. Some options include using bear-proof trashcans, or passing an ordinance that limits the hours when citizens can have their trash out.

“The answer is not going out and killing every bear,” Phillips said.

Locals have had a number of remarkable bear encounters during the last year. An Ilwaco woman was tried for allegedly feeding bears on the de facto nature reserve she’d created in the Sahalee neighborhood. Ilwaco High School and Long Beach Elementary School were both placed on temporary lockdown when bears were spotted roaming around campus. In July, a rash of garbage raids in downtown Long Beach lead WDFW officials to authorize Long Beach Police to shoot the “suspect bear” who had grown disturbingly bold. Two night-shift officers killed the bear in July. In November, a mother bear and her two cubs got spooked while foraging for garbage inside of Safari RV Park and climbed a tree in a resident’s back yard. WDFW officers used tranquilizer darts to shoot the bears out of the tree. They were relocated.

This spring, the continued presence of bears led Barb and Chuck Kelly, a vacation home-owning couple from Mill Creek to wrote a critical letter to the mayor and other local officials, urging them not to “let bears run around the city streets.”

“We bought a place in the city, close to ‘town’, so that we could walk to the movie theater, many restaurants … coming home often in the dark. But now all of that has been taken away from us, because of this inexcusable lack of action on your part!” Chuck Kelly wrote. “I know of no other city where bears can be free to inhabit, and I guess be a citizen of it too. I’d like to see the taxes they pay.”

Kelly said the city’s practice, of advising citizens to secure their trash cans, “is not acceptable.”

In an interview after the meeting, Cenci said the driving factor behind almost all of the encounters is “an abundance of food available, both from people leaving garbage and from fruit trees.” The LBPD log entries clearly support this claim.

More than half of the 51 log entries involved bears getting into garbage cans — most recently, on May 24, a resident on Main Street in Ilwaco fired a rifle in the air, after he saw a bear going through trashcans. Another 12 incidents described bears prowling in parking lots and yards. These were probably searching for garbage, but the police didn’t specifically cite garbage in the reports.

The garbage-related incidents describe similar scenarios: Bears usually waited until the period between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., then tipped unsecured trashcans to get at the stinky treasures inside. Roughly half of these occurred at private residences, or along residential streets. The remainder occurred at commercial properties and public facilities, where dumpsters can provide an overwhelming temptation.

Bears have gotten into trashcans at the elementary school, the Neptune Theater, the Chinook Observer, and the Worldmark condominiums.

Shooting the bear that frequented the Bolstad approach and Super Eight last summer didn’t solve the problem. This spring, a log entry noted that bears are still “ransacking” the motel’s garbage.

Phillips said that some business-owners and residents have built enclosures that successfully put an end to their bear problems. However, he pointed out that it is somewhat more difficult for downtown merchants to build structures, because space is at a premium.

According to Cenci, there’s “No easy solution,” but participants in the meeting came up with several suggestions for WDFW to pursue in collaboration with city officials and citizens. At some point this summer, there will be a town hall, where citizens can discuss their concerns with WFDW and learn more about how to keep bears at bay. WDFW is also researching ways to do more public outreach in the area. And people who allow garbage to accumulate might also face stricter enforcement action in the future.

“We’re gonna be taking a harder line with that,” Cenci said.

Finally, Cenci said, the owners of Peninsula Sanitation have agreed to research the possibility of introducing bear-proof containers. Staff from Peninsula Sanitation did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication, but Cenci said they were open to taking on a more active role.

“They were very interested in helping us find a solution,” Cenci said.

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