Black bear-human conflicts increase statewide, but especially in Ashland
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
James Sheridan encountered his first black bear more than 10 years ago outside his Ashland home.
The cinnamon-colored black bear, fondly dubbed “Cinnamon” by neighbors, thoroughly spooked Pepper, Sheridan’s Chihuahua, sending the dog into a barking frenzy at his home in a wooded neighborhood in the Ashland hills off the south end of Morton Street.
“I was sitting out on the back porch and I heard her (Pepper) barking,” Sheridan said, “and a 300-pound bear just came running past me, jumped up in the tree, and this like 3-pound Chihuaha is underneath — it was the funniest thing.”
Sheridan said Cinnamon, often with two cubs in tow, has frequented the neighborhood so much, neighbors know her by name.
Since that first sighting, Sheridan told Ashland.news he’s easily seen nine black bears a year in his neighborhood. They most often show up in late spring and summer months, emerging from wooded areas in the Ashland hills, which abuts the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
Mathew Vargas, wildlife conflict biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) in Central Point, said he and his colleagues are seeing increased numbers of black bear-human conflicts across the state, especially in Ashland.
“For whatever reason, this is a bad year when it comes to human-bear conflict,” Vargas said.
Black bears account for the most conflict with humans of any species in the state, according to Vargas, and, as far as having a high density area for black bear-human conflict, “Ashland’s No. 1 in Oregon,” Vargas said.
Vargas of ODFW and Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest co-hosted a “Bear Aware” talk at the Medford REI outdoor store in mid-May, where they shared for through hikers on staying safe when passing through the forest, as well as for those living on the fringes of the forest, as is the case for many Ashland residents.
“We do have a heavy bear population here in southern Oregon, so that’s kind of the first … piece of the puzzle,” Vargas said. “Ashland in particular … the leading theory of my colleagues is that the town kind of just butts right up against the national forest there and Ashland watershed (is) basically prime bear habitat.”
The space between the forest and urban homes “kind of mix in with one another” and set the stage for “bears to move very easily into town.”
“You see sort of the barrier there, as well when we look at our calls that Siskiyou Boulevard … Most all of our complaints are on the west side of that, so I think that’s a little barrier stopping them. Occasionally they’ll cross and go to the east side of Ashland, but not too often.”
Vargas said that when bears have lost their fear of people, they tend to show up in more residential-type areas and can exhibit aggressive behavior, like popping their jaw.
ODFW has fielded 157 reports regarding black bears in Jackson, Josephine, and Curry Counties this year, with 44 of them in Ashland, he said.
“We’re getting into the heavy complaint time here,” he said. “People are starting to get out, starting to recreate.”
Reports can include anything from tipped-over garbage containers to bears slamming their paws on windows or doors to destroying bird-feeders or barbecues.
“Whenever there’s human-wildlife conflict with any wildlife species, it’s bad for both people and the wildlife,” he added, “whether that’s more indirect things like concentrating them and diseases can spread faster through them or all the way to causing major issues with people so they just get so habituated and used to people that they become a human-safety threat.”
While uncommon, these occurrences are becoming more consistent, including recent multiple sightings of what appears to be the same bear near the Ashland YMCA and Clay Street area, all during daylight hours, as posted online by Ashland Police Department.
Comments posted to Ashland Police’s Facebook page show the sightings aren’t the only ones of late.
Dee Fretwell posted that two bear cubs were spotted “walking past humans and dogs without a care in the world” around 9:30 a.m. earlier this week, in the area of Glendale Avenue and Siskiyou Boulevard.
Ashland Police advise residents and tourists to make sure no food is left outside and to report any sightings to the city’s wildlife mapping tool at gis.ashland.or.us/cougar/ and to call 911 if there is an immediate threat to public safety.
“It is definitely not ideal,” Vargas said. “But again, there is (currently) no threatening behavior documented towards people, which is very good.”
Though human-bear conflicts do arise, Vargas cautioned not to worry.
“‘Be bear aware, but attacks in Oregon are very, very slim,” he told attendees at the meeting at REI.
ODFW encourages measures to deter bears from frequenting populated areas, and bear-resistant garbage containers are one of the easiest ways to do it.
One of the tips Vargas advised during his bear talk at REI includes using a bear-resistant garbage container.
Gary Blake of Recology Ashland said, effective Friday, July 1, it will cost an additional $5.88 per month — $28.55 per month instead of $22.67 — for the bear-resistant container.
The extra $5 and change can help keep the trash intact, however, and the bears at bay — almost for sure, as he said the carts are “99% effective” — they are bears, after all.
“This seems like a more active year for the bear and the calls we’re getting,” Recology’s Gary Blake told Ashland.news.
“I think it’s kind of all in our interest to control this,” he added. “To the extent that we can dissuade the bear from being in our neighborhood is a good benefit to all.”
Recology Ashland fields two to three calls a week from residents requesting what Blake refers to as a “bear cart.”
Blake said it’s pretty rare for a city to offer the garbage containers, but not so much in Ashland, where more than 500 residences currently have them. Approximately 10% of garbage containers in Ashland are of the bear-resistant variety, which have a heavy, steel lid, he said.
He recommends using a bear-resistant container, or keeping a regular one inside a sheltered area like a garage overnight, if there are issues with bears.
“It seems like our bears pester us year-round,” Blake said. “They don’t really hibernate around here … This is definitely a heavy time through the summer.”
Sheridan, who lives in the wildland-urban interface area, sees more bears near his place in the spring and early summer, and supposes they’re just hungry and looking to fill their stomachs.
Most of the people in his neighborhood in the Ashland hills don’t put their garbage cans out until the morning to avoid bears getting into the containers.
“Recology knows that this is bear country so they say, ‘Hey, don’t worry about putting them out at night,’” Sheridan said.
Sheridan takes the bear sightings in stride, welcoming their presence and keeping a light-hearted approach — “not forcing them to not be here, but knowing certain areas that you don’t want them in, so you tighten up security.”
He believes it’s important to “live with them” and develop a balance. But even he has had to take heightened measures when seeing more bear activity this spring, due to his hobby as a casual beekeeper.
Bears have frequented his front and back porches, and until he took up beekeeping, he didn’t mind seeing them so close in proximity.
But once Sheridan started keeping hives of honey bees on his front porch — he currently has about 300,000 bees — he’s bulked up his strategy to keep the black bears out of his property by building an electric fence to keep them at bay.
“Once the bees came in, the bears were just tearing them apart,” Sheridan said. “Then I had to kind of fence it out.
“It’s a deterrent,” he said, noting the bears are not harmed by the fence.