ODFW unveils Black Bear Management Plan

Oregon wildlife managers want to maintain a stable black bear population and reduce human-bear conflicts, according to a new draft plan meant to guide management of one of the state's top predators.

The long-awaited draft Black Bear Management Plan also lists as top priorities an improved computer-modeling of the state's estimated 25,000 to 35,000 bruins and improved understanding of bear ecology through research projects.

Unveiled Tuesday, the 60-page draft is the first update since 1998 of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's guiding document for bear management. The update came after an Applegate Valley group announced plans to sue ODFW for breaking its self-imposed rule about updating such plans every five years.

Like elsewhere in North America, Oregon's bear population is thought to be stable or increasing, so the draft details no drastic management changes, ODFW Wildlife Division spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy said.

"But we want the updated plan to reflect the latest research and population modeling techniques and our desire to see any negative outcomes with bears minimized," Dennehy said.

Spencer Lennard of the group Big Wildlife, which threatened to sue ODFW last year for failing to update the bear plan, said he and others believe the black bear population is trending down, not up, largely due to what he considers overkill by sport hunters and those killing bears that cause damage. Lennard said Tuesday he had not seen the draft, but the group's bear experts will pore over the draft before commenting.

"We are extremely distrustful of (ODFW), and we think this agency is running bears into the ground," Lennard said.

Agency biologists will take public comments on the draft up until the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission votes on whether to approve it during its June 7-8 meeting in Salem. Comments sent in before April 13, however, will be reviewed and summarized for the commission at its April 20 meeting, where the commissioners will be briefed on it.

A revised draft will be released in May, Dennehy said.

The plan's main objectives are managing Oregon bears in concert with other species while reducing human-bear conflicts that result in bears getting killed.

Last year, 22 bears were killed over "real or perceived" threats to humans or pets, down from 30 in 2010 and 25 in 2009, according to the draft.

The agency has taken its lumps from the public over perceived inaccuracies in its big-game population computer models, and the bear plan draft specifically calls for updating and improving its modeling techniques — even if it means contracting with an academic institution to do so, the draft states.

The plan also details general guidelines for how agency biologists handle black bear complaints and interactions between bears and people.

It also has an appendix, written last year by ODFW wildlife veterinarian Colin Gillin, detailing a suite of options for how orphaned bear cubs should be handled. It stresses returning them to the wild as an initial option — especially older cubs, which research shows can survive well in the wild on their own.

For young orphaned cubs, agency officials would first seek out zoos or other facilities that meet Association of Zoos and Aquariums standards before they are euthanized, the draft states.

"It's doing what's best for the animal, based on its condition," Dennehy said.

The plan concludes that Oregon has more than 26,800 square miles of good bear habitat and another 44,236 square miles of fair bruin habitat.

In 2011, agency biologists logged 384 complaints involving bear damage or public-safety concerns, down from 920 complaints in 2010.

Last year, 1,772 bears were killed statewide, with 1,346 of them killed by sport hunters and another 352 bears killed as a result of damage incidents, the draft states. Along with the 22 bears killed over safety complaints, another 52 died as a result of miscellaneous categories such as roadkill, accidental death or poaching, according to the draft.

Black-bear densities are highest in the Coast Range, the Cascade Range and Blue Mountains. The arid area of Southeast Oregon has the fewest bears.

The draft points out some often-overlooked aspects of black bears, such as their color, which can vary from light brown or cinnamon to black.

Most human-bear problems occur when bears are being fed by people, which led the Oregon Legislature to pass a bill last year that bans most instances of placing food, garbage or other attractants for black bears and some other wildlife species.

Oregon has never had a fatal black-bear attack on a human, and only four known human-bear interactions resulted in a person being injured, according to the draft. Those cases involved hunters, dogs agitating bears or bears becoming attracted to homes with accessible food or birdseed, the draft states.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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