FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Across the Southwest more and more bears have shown up in people’s kitchens, garages and flower beds. Wildlife officials in Colorado say in that state alone they had to euthanize 133 “problem bears” last year. And in Arizona at least a dozen bears have been euthanized, and scores of sightings have many people rattled.
But add an extended drought and wildfires to that trend and those bear-human encounters become a bigger problem. The long drought and fire have killed off berries, acorns and other favorite foods in parts of the Southwest. So animals have become resourceful.
Andi Rogers is a habitat specialist with Arizona Game and Fish.
"The grasses that they feed upon are non-existent in their normal environments," said Andi Rogers, Arizona Game and Fish habitat specialist. "Something like a prickly pear cactus or something you grow in your yard might look really juicy to them. And so you get an animal that maybe once have had a enough food outside of your yard now comes in to chew on your ornamental flowers."
And some people think they’re doing wildlife a favor by actually leaving food out for them. Shelly Shepherd’s job is to educate the public for Game and Fish.
"A fed bear is a dead bear," Shepherd said. "When you feed wildlife, you’re changing the animal’s behavior; you’re changing their regular daily patterns; you are also possibly teaching an adult animal habits that they then pass on to their young."
Then the bears grow to expect the food and lose their fear of humans, and risk an encounter that could end up in the bear’s death.
Bruce Sitko works out of the Pinetop Game and Fish office in northeastern Arizona, where most of Arizona’s bears live. Sitko said last season they received around 300 calls about “nuisance bears.” If it’s a cub they can trap it and take it to a zoo, but often zoos are full. Sometimes they can relocate the bear, but Sitko says often that doesn’t work.
"We captured a bear that was causing a problem behind the restaurant in the dumpster, took the bear about 60 miles, let the thing go, and within five days that same bear was back in the same dumpster," Sitko said. "And we know this because of the identification tags we put in the ears."
So it was killed.
Arizona Game and Fish rewrote its policy on dealing with bears in the mid-1990s. That’s when a problem bear living near a southern Arizona campground was relocated several miles away. It came back and mauled a teenage girl.
Today’s policy is to euthanize adult males after its first human encounter, because they are considered more aggressive. Females or yearlings get a second chance. Game and Fish eartag them and drive them several miles away. If they come back, they’re euthanized.
The Sierra Club's Sandy Bahr said she understands an animal has to be killed when it’s clearly a threat to public safety. But she said they were here first. Bears and mountain lions may be predators, but they’re part of the ecosystem, and therefore Game and Fish should do more to protect them.
"We think the agency is overall headed in the wrong direction," Bahr said. "Their policies are very anti-predator. I think a big concern is that they would backslide on some of these education efforts and revert back to 'shoot first and ask questions later.'"
But Shepherd said, "it’s the last thing we want to do. It’s the last resort is to have to put an animal down."
Even with strict policy guidelines, Shepherd said Game and Fish officials try to look at each case individually and then decide what the best option is.
Game and Fish can expect more bear calls in coming years, as evidence suggests more intense drought throughout the southwest.