Thursday, August 18, 2022
Aug. 18, 2022

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Bear sightings are common in East King County as development expands into their habitat

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SEATTLE — Samantha Martin was watching “Homeward Bound” with her daughter in their Redmond home this month when the toddler ran to their back door, unlocked it and walked outside. Martin chased her, because sometimes they see bobcats or coyotes in their yard and no one is allowed outside at night.

“That’s a bear!” her daughter excitedly yelled. Then the little girl ran toward the bear cub.

“I just panicked because it looked like a cub and I didn’t know if mama bear was gonna pop up and defensively attack,” Martin said.

Martin grabbed her daughter, “panic cussing the whole time,” ran inside and locked the door.

The black bear climbed over the chain-link fence and disappeared.

Extremely close encounters are rare, but as urban development expands in King County, bears become a consistent sight in residential neighborhoods, particularly in areas of East King County that tout their proximity to nature.

The recent killing of a black bear that was unnaturally large and had a habit of getting into garbage and other human-sourced food underscores the importance of learning how to coexist with the animals, wildlife officials say. The 5-year-old bear, captured in the Squak Mountain area, was about 150 pounds overweight, which wildlife officials attribute to his habit of getting into trash, bird feeders and pet food.

“I hope that everyone can learn from incidents like this, on the little things that we can do to try to reduce these kinds of conflict, and keep wildlife wild,” said Fenner Yarborough, wildlife program manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s North Puget Sound region.

The agency has received between 480 and 680 reports of bear incidents or sightings in King County each year since 2017, according to Yarborough. This doesn’t necessarily reflect population, since a string of reports could be from the same incident — “It can be the same bear that walked through the neighborhood and 15 people called and said they saw it,” he added.

In total, there are about 20,000 black bears throughout Washington, and in King County, about 17 black bears per 38.6 square miles of bear habitat. The grizzly bear population is small and concentrated in areas of the Selkirk Mountains and sites near the Washington-Canada border; no grizzlies have been documented in the North Cascades since 2010, according to WDFW.

Black bears emerge from their dens in April and haven’t eaten for months, so they’re hungry and looking for the easiest sources of food — like the contents of a trash can, wildlife officials said.

“They would have to eat a lot of blueberries to equal the calories they find in a garbage bag,” said Nadine Drisseq, founder of Bear Smart Washington, an organization focused on protecting bears.

Bears are creatures of habit, so if they find something they like, they’ll likely come back for more.

“We’re trying to eliminate those things, so when they do come down and don’t see or see anything they like, they don’t come back,” Yarborough said.

A few weeks ago, John Yacono spotted a big bear at Trilogy at Redmond Ridge, a retirement community, as he was walking with a friend from the pickleball courts to the clubhouse. They briefly followed the bear as it walked away until it stopped and turned toward them. The pair stopped and looked for retreat routes, but the bear continued off into the woods.

When he and his wife walk the trails at the community, they make sure to have a noisy conversation or play tunes on his iPhone so they don’t have a surprise encounter with the large animals.

“We love living in this community so close to wildlife,” Yacono said in an email. “If you take proper precautions, we feel we’ll be OK. After all, we have encroached on their living space.”

On Carnivore Spotter, a site where residents of the Greater Seattle area can submit sightings of animals like bears, coyotes and river otters, there are dozens of reports of bear activity over the last year. Nearly all are in East King County, though some reports are from outlying areas like Anacortes, Kingston and Graham. The website was created through the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project, a partnership between Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle University, to see how the animals live and interact in the Seattle area.

The zoo also led the Coexisting with Carnivores program with the Issaquah community, which began as a middle school curriculum and expanded to working with Issaquah and Issaquah Highlands residents.

“You ask in a class of sixth graders, ‘how many of you have seen a bear?’ — the majority of hands go up when you’re in Issaquah,” said Katie Remine, Woodland Park’s Living Northwest Conservation coordinator. “A lot of people have stories.”

Residents would talk about the barriers to addressing issues, like trash, Remine recalled. Wildlife-proof trash cans cost more than regular bins. It’s best to put out cans the morning of pickup, but it’s much easier to put them out the night before. Some homeowners associations or neighborhood councils have their own rules — in the Issaquah Highlands, bins must be stored indoors during non-pickup hours, and can only be brought out 12 hours before and after pickup.

Others told Remine they were concerned about development, and the people who moved to the area because they wanted to be close to nature but do not understand the risks that come with it.

“They thought about putting in brochures in new employee packets,” she said. “We didn’t get to do that, but it’s such a good idea.”

In Redmond, Martin and her family took down the bird feeder they think attracted the bear to their backyard. But her daughter, Martin added, still “has been going outside every morning now, asking where the bear went.”

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