YAKIMA, Wash. -- Three weeks ago, a black bear’s mauling of a woman in her own garage made headlines around the world. That the attack took place in a fashionable suburb of Orlando, Fla., a tourist Mecca of theme parks and southern sun, fueled the universal fascination with the story. So did the fact that as many as four other bears were part of the live audience.
Lurid mental images of a bear attack notwithstanding, though, nothing about what happened is particularly surprising, for two primary reasons.
This is the time of year when black bears emerge from their dens, bent upon regaining the third of their body weight lost during hibernation.
And the open garage door was a de facto invitation to the garbage cans within — precisely what the bears were perusing when the homeowner entered the garage.
“It’s almost always a food-related situation,” said Lorna Smith, executive director of Port Townsend-based Western Wildlife Outreach. “Bears and people live together, and the majority of the time people are not aware (of the bears’ presence). Really, the only thing that brings bears into contact with humans is when they are looking for food.
“(After) the incident in Florida,” Smith added, “we want people to be aware this sort of thing could happen here.”
A half-million black bears inhabit North America, including 40 U.S. states and roughly 60 percent of Washington state, all but the arid Columbia Basin. And even if Washington’s black bears number closer to 15,000, as many wildlife biologists believe, than the official estimate of 25,000, that’s still enough to warrant precaution.
Especially for those people living in the wooded fringes of urban areas, like so many of the communities in western Yakima and Kittitas counties and much of Klickitat County.
And especially right now.
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Bear conflicts spike in spring and late fall, when they’re coming out of or preparing to go into hibernation.
“When they come out of the dens, they’ve lost up to 40 percent of their body weight and they’re looking to pack on some body weight before breeding season starts in June,” said Rich Beausoleil, bear and cougar specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There’s not a lot out there yet in terms of their normal food sources, so if there’s an attractant, they’re going to take advantage of it.”
Easy prey can include the obvious — such as trash cans put out the night before pickup, rather than the morning of — and the not-so-obvious. A pet’s food bowl left on a back porch, for example, and even the bird feeder you put out to attract finches and wrens.
“It’s not that the bear population is out of control. They’re close to people because we give them a reason to be, and that’s high-calorie food,” Beausoleil said.
“A bear needs about 3,000 calories a day to survive, and one full bird feeder, average size, is about 750 calories. Think about that: If you’re a bear, you could spend the entire day picking berries and trying to eat bugs and grubs and balsam root and all these other things — or you could hit-and-run on the bird feeders in few a back yards and you’ve just eaten enough to live another day.”
Alan Bauer, a hiking guidebook photographer and author who lives in a thickly forested area of the Snoqualmie Valley, has gone out of his way to educate his neighbors about co-existing with bears.
“They just didn’t quite understand,” Bauer said. “When it gets to be April, one of the biggest culprits will be the people and their bird feeders. It’s hard for me — I like having the birds everywhere, because they create photographic opportunities right on my own property.”
Now, though, he takes his bird feeders in at night, and reminds his neighbors to “quit putting the garbage out on Tuesday night for a Wednesday morning pickup.
“A lot of people think (bears) are terrible things to have around. But they don’t realize they’re the problem, not the bears.”
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Even doing all of the right things, though, doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to avoid a bear encounter. Especially right now.
The vast majority of those encounters are benign; unless they’ve come to associate humans as careless providers of easy meals, black bears typically choose to avoid humans and, more often than not, will run away.
The very rare predatory male bear, though, will not.
Roughly a third of all fatal attacks by wild black bears in North America have occurred in the months of May or June. In the vast majority of the cases the attacking bear has been a lone predatory male — and only very rarely, perhaps contrary to popular belief, a mother defending cubs.
“She may act very aggressively, and indeed she’s trying to tell you ‘Get away, I need distance, you’re too close,’” said bear behavior expert Dr. Stephen Herrero, following his 2011 University of Calgary study that analyzed 63 fatal attacks in North America by non-captive black bears between 1900 and 2009. “(The mother bear) makes a lot of noise. She looks like she’s really aggressive.
“But the bears that are going to get you in serious trouble are ones that follow you and don’t make noise.”
The possibility of an attack by such a bear that wildlife experts advise people to fight back aggressively against any attacking black bear, using fists, rocks, sticks or whatever is available. Statistics indicate these predatory bears look for smaller, potentially weaker prey; nearly two-thirds of all victims of fatal black bear attacks since 1997 are female.
And nearly a third of all victims are 12 years old or younger — not yet strong enough to fight back against a 250- to 300-pound assailant armed with claws and sharp teeth.
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That was the case on May 16, 1974, when 4-year-old Victoria Valdez became the only Washington resident ever killed by a non-captive black bear.
That day, little Vicky was playing alongside a creek some 200 yards from the family home near the northern Klickitat County community of Glenwood. She happened to be on the side of the property closest to the Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge, where visitors occasionally see black bears.
Bill and Alta Valdez, who had moved the family to Glenwood from Toppenish only a few weeks earlier, didn’t know about the bears.
“We thought it would be a good place to raise our kids,” recalled Alta Valdez. “We just didn’t know (about the bears in the area). If only our neighbors had told us ... we were just so new here. We probably should have never let them go out in the pasture, but it was just open.”
When Vicky’s 6-year-old brother, Marcus, told his parents he didn’t know where she was, Bill Valdez went out to search for her and, upon finding torn and blood-stained bits of her clothing, ran back to the house to get a rifle. By the time he found his daughter, she was already dead, and he shot and killed the bear that killed her.
The bear, a 2-year-old male, had not attempted to feed on the girl’s body — or didn’t have time to before Bill Valdez shot it, said Darrell Smith, Western Wildlife Outreach’s science advisor, who at that time was just finishing his wildlife biology degree at Washington State University.
“Ordinarily, hungry carnivores immediately begin to consume prey,” he said. “The speculation at the time within the academic wildlife community at WSU was that this was ‘deviant’ bear behavior from a ‘deviant’ bear.”
The Valdez family still lives in Glenwood, less than a mile from their 1974 home, and Alta Valdez said they love the Glenwood community. But things changed forever for their other seven biological children, as well as the roughly 20 foster-care kids they’ve raised and their many grandchildren.
“I really, really try to be careful with the children,” Alta Valdez said. “Even with our grandchildren now, we don’t even let them go to the barn by themselves, or without an adult.”
She said they haven’t seen a bear on their property since that terrible day in 1974. But she knows they’re out there.
Especially right now.