Black bears, for the most part, like most wild animals, mind their own business avoiding the world of humans except when it comes to potential sources of food.
Hunters have been barred since the mid-1990s from using foodstuffs as either edible or scent lures to draw black bears into their field of fire. This ban was mandated by the voting public and was limited in scope to just baiting acts related to hunting.
From then to now neither black bears, the game wardens who are called upon to act as referees between wildlife and humans nor any other innocent third parties had any relief from the effects of food source nuisances left outdoors by non-hunters in rural and in some cases suburban areas.
Whether it's garbage stored outside or put out for curb pick-up, Fido's food bowl, certain livestock fodders or even wild bird feed, black bears, being scavenging omnivores at heart, ambling through their range are sorely tempted when encountering such stuffs.
Federal, state and local park managers have been well ahead of the curve on the issue of leaving edibles out where bears and other animals can habituate to them.
Backcountry campers were the first to learn the perils of and pay the price for keeping a sloppy camp or leaving food at ground level.
Normally deferential in their approach to humans, in their finder-eater world black bears can and often become aggressive and dangerous when defending food they co-opt as theirs.
The dos and don'ts of food handling in the woods quickly translated to front country drive-in campgrounds and now bear-proof garbage and food storage containers are either present and offered for use or every human visitor must bring their own.
But, as fish and wildlife authorities have found, many rural human residents and even some city limits dwellers have not taken heed of the lesson driven home in the backcountry and campgrounds.
With an estimated 30,000 black bears now roaming Washington and more and more humans desiring to settle in secluded areas, the boundaries between the two have become blurred and in many cases non-existent.
As mentioned fish and wildlife officers are the designated umpires when disputes between humans and bruins occur.
Dealing with dangerous and nuisance wildlife complaints (including calls about black bears) as a category of their enforcement activities is near the top of many a game warden's monthly work report.
"Food is involved virtually every time we respond to a call about a bear sighted in a neighborhood," said Deputy Police Chief Mike Cenci of WDFW's fish and wildlife enforcement program.
LAWS ATTEMPT TO BRIGHTEN LINE
Two new statutes, 77.15.790 and 77.15.792, were added to Washington's revised code of laws as of June 2012 that are intended to reduce the cause of many black bear/human conflicts and more appropriately apportion the onus for actions and consequences.
Section 790 prohibits feeding, attempting to feed or attracting wild large carnivores through the negligent (unwitting) placement of any whole foods, food wastes or any other substances in, on or about any lands or building.
Section 792 makes it illegal to intentionally (knowingly or with purpose) feed, attempt to feed or attract with feed wild large carnivores to any lands or building again with the use of any whole foods, food wastes or any other substances.
Both laws use the general appellation 'wild, large carnivores' to cover the range of wildlife that humans should avoid drawing encounters with, but, by far, black bears are the most susceptible, therefore most likely to be involved when it comes to errantly deposited edibles.
The two statutes between them establish a legal distinction between 'negligently' and 'intentionally' feeding large wild carnivores and in doing so establish different modes of prosecution and imposition of penalties for violators.
In the non-willful or inadvertent case (negligent) a fish and wildlife officer, with probable cause, may issue an infraction notice (non-criminal) that carries a potential $87 fine as a penalty. Abatement (removal or clean-up) within a short period after the notice's issuance is required to avoid possible amended, more serious charges.
Examples of attractive nuisances this law is intended to alleviate (especially when bears are reported or likely to be in an area) are:
- unsecured garbage, flimsy garbage cans and composts.
- bird feeders within reach of bears.
- pet foods left outside.
- unsecured small pets.
- uncleaned barbeques.
People living in and visitors to black bear country can forestall bad bruin behavior by eliminating the circumstances and things that provoke it, say fish and wildlife officials.
Under the second more egregious scenario, anyone who knowingly or with purpose (intentional) puts out food and/or garbage to draw large wild carnivores onto land or to a building can be charged with a misdemeanor crime that can carry a fine of up to $1,000.
Reasons always go with deliberacy and proving intent is a harder case to make, but persons who do not hunt occasionally have tried to intentionally lure bears.
A Glacier area resident about eight years ago put out sweet foods to attract a bear close enough to his house to photograph it and told other residents of his effort.
The young unwitting bear involved, after a number of complaints and a trap/relocate effort, had to be killed because it had become habituated to human food sources and therefore posed too much of a risk to humans.
Farmers and ranchers conducting their operations in accordance with Titles 15 and 16 of the Revised Code of Washington are not directly subject to the RCW 77.15.790, which also does not apply to waste disposal facilities that are operating in compliance with all federal, state and municipal laws.
Timber industry workers engaged in certain feeding activities to ward off tree damage by black bears, researchers and others with scientific collection permits together with fish and wildlife department personnel trapping nuisance or dangerous animals also are exempted from this anti-animal-feeding law.
However, Section 790 does allow that if a fish and wildlife officer can articulate facts supporting a contention that there is an overriding public safety concern resulting from conditionally exempt activities, a written warning and requirement to abate may be issued.
The exempt party then has 48 hours to remove or clean up the attractive (food source) nuisances or face an infraction notice.
A FED BEAR IS A DEAD BEAR
It is a grim reality for some black bears that their fondness for handy human food sources alone can be their undoing.
In the aforementioned Glacier area case the animal was first captured, tagged, moved and released in a remote location.
But it found its way back over a considerable distance and resumed its foraging around residences.
It did not get another chance after its recapture, which involved the use of food bait.
Courts have found in several cases of attacks by wild animals known to have had previous close interactions with humans that state wildlife management agencies can be liable for the subsequent damage and injuries these specific "managed" animals cause.
A "trouble" animal with a documented history of threatening behavior towards humans or domestic animals as well as one that repeatedly forages for food around human facilities is highly likely to remain disposed to do so.
Risk managers now say that the act of relocating and releasing that animal can also transfer the onus and legal responsibility for future misbehavior to the state. Elk and deer are managed in Washington by the state, therefore the agriculture damage they do must be paid for by hunters.
Relocating trouble black bears remains an option but in some regions of Washington there aren't enough road-accessible remote areas into which bruin behavioral problems can be driven for release.
A second often unseen consequence of relocation is that such animals, especially young male or boar blacks, shortly after being let go may be killed by an older indigenous bear. Sometimes the released animal will kill a bear occupant in its transplant territory to make room for itself.
Either way, transplants can result in a bear death.