JBLM takes active role in keeping base safe from bears
August 11, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash., Aug. 11, 2011 -- Last month a police car came tearing into the parking lot of a Joint Base Lewis-McChord shopette, lights on and sirens blaring -- to pick up a box of doughnuts.
“This is a police emergency,” the military police officer told the clerk as he rushed passed the register. “We’ll be back to pay for these.”
It might sound like the punch line of a joke, but the doughnuts were needed to lure a bear sighted near the New Hillside housing area. The bear was caught (and the doughnuts were paid for), but the situation is becoming increasingly common at JBLM.
The 198-pound female black bear was one of three captured in a four-week period this summer, all around Miller Hill. While the animals are frequently seen foraging for food in the late summer and fall, there have been more spotted on base this year than ever before.
While the bears might be fun to look at, officers are reminding base residents that wild animals and human beings don’t mix.
“The thing we don’t want is bad bear-human contact,” said Lt. Chris Enoch of the JBLM Training Area Patrol Division, which is responsible for capturing the bears.
The increase in bears seen on base has led to more traps being laid, and more successful captures. But while there haven’t been any negative encounters so far black bears are far from cuddly, especially when they get comfortable in a human environment.
“The more they get used to people, the more dangerous they become,” explained Officer Bruce Richards of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Richards, who has worked for Fish and Wildlife for 38 years, has helped with several relocations of bears caught on base this summer. If the animal hasn’t harmed anyone by the time it’s caught, it must be turned over the state to be released back into the wild.
On Aug. 3, a 220-pound male bear got a taste of the experience, which is intended to teach them to stay away from humans in the future. After following the scent of bear bait (the recipe includes doughnuts, bacon grease and other secret ingredients), he was towed high into the Cascades where Richards, law enforcement officials and a dog named Mishka put his fight or flight instincts to the test.
“For him, this is a life or death situation right now,” Richards said as he waited to open the trap and let the bear out.
Mishka, a Karelian bear dog who helps Fish and Wildlife officers track and scare off bears, had been allowed to bark and growl at the bear starting a good 20 minutes before the release. His presence had a clear purpose -- to let the other animal know that when the door opened, he would have to choose between fighting and running away.
When the gate finally opened, the bear was given a brief head start. He pushed out of the trap as officers yelled and shot beanbags at him. The idea is to condition the animals to fear, and avoid, humans.
In these situations, one officer always has a gun with live ammunition, in case the situation gets out of hand.
On this particular afternoon, everything went according to plan. The bear ran for the woods, and Mishka was released a moment later so he could push him farther off the road. The bear ended up in a tree, and Mishka was called back to his bed in the back of Richards’ truck.
The animals are never killed unless they have to be.
“I try to give the bear the best chance for survival,” Richards said.
Part of that includes taking them far from the signs of civilization that tempted them down from the woods to begin with -- but the best option is to prevent them from coming in the first place.
The more people dump garbage in wooded areas around their homes, or even leave dog food bins and garbage cans unsecured, the more likely bears are to come searching for them. Black bears can smell birdseed up to a mile away, according to Richards, and delicious items like uncleaned barbecues from even farther.
“All this is, is it’s inviting these animals to come down and see you,” TAPD Officer Christopher Pekema said.
It’s not a visit JBLM residents should welcome. The bears are strong and very, very fast, and generally not something people should mess with.
“You can’t outrun a black bear,” he said.
Instead, people should stay calm, and resist the urge to grab their cell phones for photos. The best-case scenario, of course, is preventing any human contact to begin with. That way bears can keep living their lives -- as far away from people as possible.
“He really didn’t do anything wrong, so there’s no sense destroying the animal,” Pekema said of the male bear recently released. “We’re just moving him back into a more conducive environment for him.”
WHAT TO DO IF YOU SEE A BEAR
• Don’t panic. If the bear hasn’t seen you, move away quietly while keeping an eye on it.
• If the bear notices you, make yourself as big as possible, but avoid threatening behaviors like direct eye contact.
• If the bear comes toward you, scare it away by shouting, clapping and looking it in the eye. Don’t run unless a safe area is very nearby.
• If you’re on base, report the encounter to the JBLM Training Area Patrol Division at 967-7112.
For information go to http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/bears.html