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Urban bears: Residents fear bruins too used to humans, endangering both

A large black bear and her two cubs found Su Rolle's backyard literally a plum place to be, right down to a room with a view.

The animals wandered into her High Street yard in Ashland regularly last week to feast on ripe plums and snooze high in her sequoia tree while waiting for the Thursday neighborhood feast also known as garbage day. But when the mother bear shimmied down the tree last Saturday, Rolle had had enough.

"In the daylight, it was really scary," says Rolle, a retired Forest Service ranger. "On her legs she was as high as my hip, just walking across the yard. I went in and locked the door. I was too afraid to go outside."

Rolle is afraid her neighbors and others are in the midst of a potentially dangerous relationship with urban black bears she and others believe are getting habituated in Ashland by residents who need to clean up their act before one of these ebony omnivores either gets hurt or hurts someone.

Rolle is encouraging her neighbors and other Rogue Valley residents to rein in their garbage, stop feeding pets outside and follow other steps to curb the growing urbanization of bears in towns before the danger level ratchets too high.

"None of us want to see them taken out, but we all have to realize we are providing a dangerous habituation problem for this bear," Rolle says. "It's not going to get better until we're all attentive."

Seeing bears bound into towns in search of everything from garbage to acorns and backyard fruit trees is an all-too-predictable phenomenon of fall in Southern Oregon, which wildlife biologists say is home to some of the more bearier habitats in the lower 48 states.

The sow and two cubs have been an almost daily sight in and around Ashland's Lithia Park, while other bears across the valley are eschewing their normal fear of humans in exchange for readily available food sources.

"They're rarely aggressive toward people," says Rosemary Stussy, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who counsels people on reducing their conflicts with wild animals, including bears. "They generally just ignore you."

So far, these bears' behaviors have not risen to the threshold of being captured and euthanized, Stussy says. And she hopes it will stay that way, adding that residents should keep garbage inside, take down bird feeders and remove as many food sources for bears as possible.

"Fruit trees are one of the hardest things to police," Stussy says. "You can't put it in the garage."

For those who encounter bears, Stussy says, making loud noises and trying to scare them comes at a cost. After a while, they'll realize someone yelling and turning on lights doesn't harm them, she says. City residents can't fire off a shotgun blast to scare them like rural residents can, she says.

Don't let dogs attempt to chase a bear away because that could turn ugly for the dog, Stussy says.

For those who stumble into a bear, don't stare it in the eyes. Instead, look down while you back away to safety, Stussy says.

"And don't freak out," Stussy says.

Outside of city limits, bears are raiding fruit orchards and vineyards such as Del Rio Vineyards near Gold Hill, where one particular black bear has a taste for pinot noir grapes.

But the urban bears are the ones that generate the telephone calls, Stussy says.

Ashlander Debbie Neisewander says she's been following bear reports in Ashland and believes the city now is home to a half-dozen bruins. "And I hate what we're doing to them," she says.

Neisewander says she's taken to Ashland neighborhoods on trash days to document cans raided by animals and ask their owners to take better care of their garbage.

"Right now it's a human problem and not a bear problem," Neisewander says. "I hate to say it, but I'm almost waiting for something to happen. It will happen, eventually."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.