Animal-rights activists dispute federal bear-killing program
Animal-rights groups are trying to force the federal government out of a program that kills black bears that damage trees on private timberlands each spring in bear-rich forests of Western Oregon.
Groups in Oregon and as far away as Colorado are disputing whether the federal Wildlife Services program has enough information to continue the trapping or shooting of bears that strip bark from trees for spring food when they emerge from hibernation.
Wildlife Services, which is an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, helps fund and oversee hunters and trappers who kill, on average, about 119 black bears annually in nine of Western Oregon's 19 counties.
The program, begun in the 1980s, has helped prevent more than &
36;1 million in bear damage to timber stands annually, the agency's assessment states.
But groups such as the Colorado-based Sinapu claim timber companies that benefit from the service should instead consider the losses as the cost of doing business and leave the bears alone, Sinapu spokeswoman Wendy Keefover-Ring said.
It gets to the fundamental issue of whether the federal government should be in the business of killing the public's wildlife for the benefit of a few, Keefover-Ring said.
Keefover-Ring said she believes the Wildlife Services' environmental analysis now up for public comment does not provide enough information on the effects of the program on bear populations and other wildlife, and she wants the program halted until the agency better investigates its impact and need.
They're asking for a federal subsidy to kill black bears, but they can't even prove that it's an economic problem, Keefover-Ring said.
But the problem is very real, said Fred Arnold, a Curry County forester who explained that the mass peeling and eating of bark by bears can devastate a stand of young firs that already survived deer, elk and other competitors.
When foresters find a group of freshly peeled trees, they notify the Wildlife Services agent to target that area before the bear can damage more stands or teach other bears the same, Arnold said.
It seems to be a learned behavior, Arnold said. taking just the offending bear, it seems to help.
There's no wholesale slaughter of bears, he said.
There are an estimated 25,000 black bears in Oregon, with about half of those living west of the Cascades, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife statistics. Wildlife Services agents kill about — percent of the bears annually, and sport-hunters in Western Oregon kill about six times the number of bears killed through the federal program, ODFW statistics show.
The meat from bears killed through the program must be salvaged, if possible, and gall bladders and other sellable pieces must be turned over to state biologists.
The 1931 Animal Damage Control Act requires the federal government to help landowners curb damage from bears and other creatures, and a similar Oregon statute demands the same from state agencies.
The bear-trapping program started about 20 years ago in Western Oregon, where private timber owners and county governments pay for more than 80 percent of the program's annual cost of about &
The federal share, about &
36;16,000 a year, primarily covers management and oversight, said Dave Williams, the Wildlife Services' state director for Oregon.
The environmental analysis details how the agency believes that the current program is more effective than alternatives such as supplemental feeding of bears, which is far more costly and can lead to an unnatural increase in bear populations.
Wildlife Services also has undergone consultation with the U.S. Forest Service over the program's impact on threatened and endangered species, and it was deemed to have no impact, Williams said.
The agency is taking public comment through Feb. 14. The analysis is expected to be completed before the bear-damage season, which usually begins when bears come out of hibernation in late March and typically runs into June.
We know the damage is still going to happen year after year, Williams said. We want to have the analysis completed so we can work on the damage that occurs (this season).
Brooks Fahey, from the Eugene-based Predator Defense Institute, said there would be no need for the program if landowners didn't create mass tree plantations, and foresters should rely more on supplemental feeding than on killing the public's wildlife.
We're really going to try to stop this, Fahey said.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail