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ODFW criticized for killing young black bear

ASHLAND — A man who attempted to rescue a young black bear April 7 near Highway 66 said he is “emotionally devastated” by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s decision to euthanize the bear.

Greensprings Fire Chief Gene Davies said he received a call from a community member concerned about a bear’s proximity to the road around 8:40 a.m. April 7, and arrived at the scene 10 minutes later in a fire department vehicle.

Davies said he established there was no immediate danger to bystanders, but the bear was located on the far side of a blind corner on Highway 66, posing risks to the animal and to vehicle traffic.

He radioed the 911 dispatch center and requested assistance from Oregon State Police and ODFW. Davies shooed the bear back into the woods, parked his vehicle on the road shoulder and remained on site to monitor the situation. The bear repeatedly returned to the road after Davies encouraged it to go into the woods, he said.

“I made the decision at that time to try to stay with the bear, keeping it off the roadway, until help arrived,” Davies said. “I spent the next two hours, approximately, babysitting the bear in the forest just a couple hundred feet away from Highway 66.”

While the young bear plopped down for a nap at Davies’ feet, he called dispatch again to determine when help would arrive, yielding no answers. He requested assistance from some volunteer firefighters on his crew, who brought a large dog crate to transport the bear.

“When they arrived on scene, I walked down from my spot up in the woods with the bear following right behind me,” Davies said.

He put a makeshift leash around the bear’s neck, coaxed it into the crate and transported it to his residence, where it was kept in a shaded area and given water, diced apples and blueberries while Davies pursued next steps, he said. The bear remained at Davies’ home overnight until an OSP trooper and ODFW employee seized the animal the following afternoon.

“The bear appeared to be resting comfortably,” Davies said. “My only concern at that point and what I was thinking was just, ‘How can I help to ensure this bear’s survival and well-being?’”

Davies later learned that a trooper saw and noted the fire department vehicle parked on the side of the road with no one around, but did not stop to investigate or attempt to contact Davies by phone or radio at that time.

“That entire time, I was less than 200 feet from my parked vehicle in an open meadow in the forest,” Davies said.

According to a situation update supplied by ODFW spokesperson Michelle Dennehy, an ODFW biologist told Davies over the phone to put the bear back in the wild or turn it over to the agency for evaluation.

Davies said the advice he received during the call was to “take the bear far away.” Later, he researched suitable habitat and habituation — information that led Davies to believe the bear would not survive if he released it into the wild alone or if he turned it over to ODFW. One of the volunteers Davies called to help contacted the Lions, Tigers & Bears Big Cat and Exotic Animal Rescue facility near Alpine, California.

Davies was cited at his home April 8 by Oregon State Police for criminal negligence and holding wildlife without a permit. Dennehy said Davies was cited only after failing to follow through on ODFW’s instructions to release the animal.

“They had what we thought was a good conversation about what to do with the bear, and at the end of the conversation, our understanding was that he would return the bear to the wild,” the ODFW update said.

According to Davies’s attorney, the citations may not stick. Per Oregon statute 609.345, in an emergency situation, a person may keep an exotic animal for up to 48 hours, provided the individual makes a good faith effort to contact law enforcement or a wildlife rehabilitation center.

According to ODFW, young animals are sometimes left alone while mothers roam and feed and people should not assume a lone animal is orphaned. The bear was a yearling based on its size, likely born in January 2020, the update said.

“The bear was approximately 15 months old, food conditioned, and habituated — precluding release as an option,” the update said. “Bears and any wild animal that has lost its natural fear of people is considered a public safety risk.”

According to the update, “obvious signs of habituation” displayed by the bear included allowing humans to lead it into a crate instead of fleeing, not reacting to a hand placed in the carrier, and sleeping while people stood around the carrier instead of displaying anxiety.

ODFW said the bear was determined to be a “poor candidate” for placement in a permanent facility after living one year in the wild, where sub-adult bears range 10 to 54 miles.

“To put a yearling bear that’s been free ranging over 10 miles into a captive facility for the rest of its life is not something we support,” the update said. “As heartbreaking as it is to see an animal put down after it’s been fed by people, releasing a habituated animal into the wild would not be responsible. Based on years of our own experience, even if it’s relocated far away, the bear now has the habit and will return or go back to the same behaviors, which could put people at risk. That’s not something we are willing to do.”

Bobbi Brink, founder of Lions, Tigers & Bears, said she contacted ODFW to relay that she intended to offer the bear sanctuary, but did not receive a return call. The next call informed her the bear had been killed.

The facility had the funding for transport, veterinary care and a place to host the bear for life, Brink said.

“This is what sanctuaries are for,” Brink said. “If the animals are sick, malnourished, abused, abandoned — most all of the animals we pick up need medical care and then, a lifetime home.”

The sanctuary currently hosts a yearling bear and a 7-year-old bear; both came from the wild. Habituated bears should be placed in sanctuary to minimize risk to humans and the animals, which will unsurprisingly return to places they know food is dispensed, she said.

One of the sanctuary’s bears visited neighborhood trash cans every Tuesday night and returned even when wildlife officials relocated him several hundred miles away. The yearling bear lost her mother and discovered campgrounds packed with cars and coolers — she came to the facility underweight but is now “thriving,” Brink said.

Brink and her team have relocated more than 800 lions, tigers, bears, cougars and leopards to sanctuaries, she said. Lions, Tigers & Bears is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and the American Sanctuary Association.

Brink said she believes Davies aimed to act in the bear’s best interest and sought the appropriate help, but cautioned that “it’s best to leave wild animals in the wild.”

Scott Beckstead, director of campaigns for the national animal welfare group Animal Wellness Action, said this incident is only the latest in a “disturbing” trend developing in ODFW since the early 2000s of seizing and killing wild animals unnecessarily.

Beckstead teaches animal law, wildlife law and policy, and the Endangered Species Act as an adjunct professor at Willamette University College of Law. He has worked on Oregon wildlife policy since 1994.

“The ODFW is clearly intolerant of people responding with kindness to wildlife,” Beckstead said. “They persecute people who want to help wildlife and their objective is to punish people who want to do the right thing by wildlife. Part of the punishment is taking the animal away from the person and killing it.”

Beckstead said in reviewing the incident, it was clear Davies had the health and safety of the bear and of passing motorists in mind — he intended to eliminate a road hazard and assist the animal. Without clear imminent assistance from ODFW or OSP, Davies proceeded to identify appropriate care for the bear, he said.

Beckstead called for a “top to bottom reassessment” of ODFW’s protocols and agency culture surrounding public attempts to assist wildlife — a goal echoed by Davies.

“ODFW needs to stop punishing people that are just trying to help, and they need to stop killing animals as their default response when those animals are in need,” Beckstead said.

Beckstead testified to the Oregon Legislature House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday with an explanation of what happened, leading up to a full informational hearing next week.

In an email to ODFW Director Curt Melcher, Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, called for ODFW and OSP to apologize to Davies and the community for “mishandling” the bear, issuing the citations and “misrepresenting this situation in the press in order to deflect legitimate criticism.”

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.