Science, not timber interests, should drive bear policy

Every spring in Oregon, black bears emerge from their long winter hibernation significantly deficient in minerals. As they have done for thousands of years, bears seek out the cambium layer under the bark of the western Douglas fir tree to replenish their bodies. This ancient evolutionary practice is critical for the bear's survival, as there are few other nutrient sources as rich as the Douglas fir.

Peeling away the bark of a tree can damage, or even kill, some trees, much to the dismay of Oregon's powerful private timber companies and tree farmers. In response, they have pressured the Oregon State Department of Fish and Wildlife to contract with the federal government's Department of Agriculture to place mechanically fired cable snares over rank bait to rid these timberlands and tree farms of black bears.

It should go without saying that snaring of bears is unethical and cruel, but just how many of Oregon's black bears have these federal agents killed in Western Oregon? Statistics show that from 2005 to 2009 the USDA snared 744 black bears at the request of private timber interests, about half of which were either females or young bears under 18 months of age.

Is this one of the reasons why people are seeing so few bears these days in Western Oregon? Is the state of Oregon managing this species with the primary objective of protecting private timber interests? Is the state of Oregon even monitoring bear populations at all?

The truth of the matter is that answers to these questions are difficult to come by, because of ODFW's failed commitment to review and update Oregon's 1993 black bear management plan. Under law, the ODFW is supposed to update this plan every five years, but 1998 came and went without an updated plan. By the time Big Wildlife — an Oregon wildlife protection organization — threatened to sue the agency in 2011, ODFW's review of its black bear plan was 13 years overdue.

Unfortunately, ODFW decided to deal with this out-of-date black bear management plan review last April by simply voting to remove the five-year plan reviews for seven Oregon wildlife species, including black bears and cougars. In lieu of mandatory revisions of these wildlife management plans, the commission accepted ODFW's proposal for less rigorous "plan revisits."

In April of this year, ODFW released a draft of their black bear plan "revisit." While it is marginally better than the previous plan, the incremental improvements still fall far short of what Oregon residents are entitled to.

The agency consistently shows an absence of commitment to manage black bear populations and their habitat as a valuable public asset. Instead, the state of Oregon continues the utilitarian agency mantra of classifying the black bear as a "game animal." This term caters to those who hunt bears or view them as pests, but does not reflect the values of Oregon residents — perhaps the majority — who recognize the intrinsic value of bears as native to our land.

ODFW expects us to believe that kill levels are not dramatically altering age and sex ratios from what could be expected in natural populations, but the minimal statistics from the tree farms — which are unfortunately about the only black bear population statistics available — tell us otherwise.

The agency's entire effort regarding bear management lacks focus and is failing in its monumental responsibility to study and implement scientifically sound bear conservation and management that is openly democratic, defensible and accountable.

In the meantime, black bear populations throughout Oregon continue to suffer the consequences. Without a scheduled management plan update, Oregon residents have no way of knowing if ODFW is managing for a viable black bear population based on the best available science. We deserve better accountability than this, and so do the bears.

Spencer Lennard is program director for Big Wildlife ( and founded KS Wild in 1997.

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