Between hunters and property owners, 420 black bears have been killed so far this year in southwest Oregon, and biologists say the year's cold, wet spring likely played a major role.
Hunters during the spring and ongoing fall seasons have so far killed 270 bears, more than twice the number killed by hunters in 2008 — when mandatory reporting of hunter-killed bears began, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Also, 43 bears were killed for causing damage that ranged from killing livestock and raiding barns to breaking into homes in Jackson, Josephine and Curry counties, ODFW statistics show.
That compares with 23 such bear deaths over damage issues in 2009 and six in 2008.
The unseasonably cold and wet spring caused poor crops of berries and acorns, which are staples in the black-bear diet. That likely made bears more mobile in their search for food, making them easier for hunters to spot and shoot during the lengthy general bear season here, which runs Aug. 1 through Dec. 31, said Steve Niemela, the ODFW's assistant Rogue District wildlife biologist.
"They're probably not getting as much food as they're used to, certainly not as much as they want," Niemela said.
"When they're hungry, they're also more likely to tip a garbage can and get into your compost pile," Niemela said.
Brooks Fahy, director of Eugene-based Predator Defense, called Niemela's theory "reasonable" and said these causes could be cyclical.
"It's hard to draw a conclusion off one season," Fahy said. "There could be other factors involved. But food is the driving factor for bears."
Fahy chided the ODFW for not being proactive enough in curbing human-bear conflicts before they result in bear deaths.
Fahy said he'd like to see more biologists spending more time in rural communities helping people to stop unwittingly luring bears to their homes by feeding pets outside, leaving trash cans accessible or filling bird feeders with seeds bears eat.
He also would like to see Oregon follow Washington's example by using specially bred and trained dogs to haze bears before they get into enough trouble that they get themselves shot.
"The agency is a hunting agency," Fahy said. "As times change, they have to represent more of the general public, and the general public doesn't want to see those animals destroyed."
The spike in bear deaths was not the only effect that protracted cold and rainy weather during April and May had on wildlife, Niemela said.
Cameras placed along black-tailed deer migration trails showed a very late start to blacktails' move from high-elevation summer range to lower-elevation winter range, Niemela said.
Fall deer breeding seemed to linger longer into December, Niemela said. Also, ground-nesting upland game birds such as quail and grouse had higher percentages of smaller birds during census counts, likely indicating poor survival rates in early-nesting birds that had a second round of hatchlings after the storms subsided, he said.
Researchers at Southern Oregon University also noted a near "year-class failure" for high-mountain frogs in the area, Niemela said.
"For everything from frogs to bears, it's been a weird year," Niemela said.