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. Hungry bears plague US west after record drought

by Staff Writers
Denver, Colorado (AFP) Sept 15, 2007
They hosed the black bear with water, threw things at it and yelled, but the stubborn animal refused to move from its perch in a tree above a quiet neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado.

Pushed from their homelands by a drought and pulled by the scent of human food, black bears across western US states are breaking into homes and tearing up garbage cans in a desperate search for nourishment ahead of hibernation.

Fires across the west also destroyed bear habitat, and the animals face the continuing peril of losing their living space to urban development.

The bear in the Boulder neighborhood finally came down from the tree and fled. The animal was lucky -- it wore an ear tag, meaning a previous run in with authorities.

Authorities would have killed the bear if they had caught it, said Tyler Baskfield, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

This year is on target for approaching the 2002 record of 404 bears killed or euthanized, Baskfield said. Colorado has a population of between 8,000 and 12,000 bears.

"We had a late freeze in June which killed the acorns and berry crop. We had a very dry mid-summer and grasses in the high country dried up. That pushed the bears down into the valleys where we have people," Baskfield said.

It is a similar story in much of the western United States.

"Just everybody is seeing bears everywhere. That's the unusual part of it -- in places where they haven't been seen before," said state of Idaho Fish and Game wildlife biologist Bret Stansberry.

"It's a fairly severe drought and that's essentially the root of the problem. There is very little natural food for them to eat. They're coming into orchards, getting into apple trees," Stansberry said.

Adult male black bears, which weigh between 68 and 160 kilos (150 and 350 pounds), usually eat for up to 20 hours a day just before hibernation in November.

State wildlife agencies are constantly urge residents to use bear-proof garbage cans and make sure no food is left outdoors, with mixed results.

Chris Healy, spokesman for the state of Nevada Department of Wildlife, said bears are posing increasing problems. "We had one up a tree today near the university," he said.

Any area that has trees and shrubs resembles a bear's natural habitat, and when the bear spots a human it usually flees up a tree, Healy said.

Nevada has a small population of black bears, mostly concentrated in the Lake Tahoe region near the California border.

"In Tahoe people are not taking care of their garbage. Once the bears start breaking into houses it's a danger to humans," Healy said.

Bear attacks on people are rare, although there was a fatal attack in July when a bear dragged an 11 year-old boy out of his tent during a camping trip in the state of Utah.

Bears are causing plenty of trouble in California, said the state's Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Jason Holley.

"They can blow the door off the hinges. This time of year we're having at least three break-ins a night around Lake Tahoe," Holley said.

Eating human food such as donuts, hamburgers, or ice cream fattens the bears up and allows them to have more cubs. "We're developing an alarming trend -- ten percent are not hibernating," Holley said.

Black bears in California have not faced competition from their natural rival, the larger grizzly bear, for nearly a century. The last known grizzly in California was shot dead in 1922. California however still has a grizzly bear on its state flag.

There are about 30,000 black bears in California today, up from 12,500 bears 12 years ago, Holley said.

In Montana, a non-profit group has come up with an original way to chase bears away from camping areas.

The Wind River Bear Institute trains Karelian dogs, a species from northern Europe, to use their scent to detect bears, program biologist Russ Talmo said. "The dogs are barking, we're yelling at the bears, we use noisemakers," Talmo said. The dogs, which resemble huskies, are nimble and can herd a bear away from the area, although the dogs are always close to humans.

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