Bears take toll on tree farmers
Landowners seek remedies to protect their stands
By STEVE BROWN
OAKVILLE, Wash. -- When bears emerge from hibernation, their hunger drives them to the nearest available food. When that food source is a tree farm, the result can be catastrophic.
Black bears, common in timbered areas of the West, strip the bark off healthy trees and chew or lick the sap running underneath. Until wild berries ripen, especially salmonberries, tree sap is their food of choice.
Ken Miller, who has a 65-acre tract of timberland southwest of Olympia, Wash., said 50 percent of his trees have been damaged over the past few years. Up to a fifth of those have been girdled, which means they're dead.
"The others might live," he said, "but they're damaged, and as much as 80 percent of the value of the tree is in that first (lowest) log."
Several remedies can help control the predation. Rick Dunning, executive director of the Washington Farm Forestry Association, said a feeding program helped at his property. A barrel is filled with food pellets, which are slightly more attractive to the bears.
"The feeding program helped that parcel of trees through their susceptible time," he said.
Heavy thinning in the area also helped -- "Bears don't seem to like openness," Dunning said. The state then thinned its stand in a neighboring area, further reducing the bear population.
Miller said his property is on the south side of Capitol Forest, but he knows of no efforts to control bears there.
"I enjoy the wildlife," he said. "If only they could take every third tree and thin my crop for me. But they'll destroy holes in the crop."
A further remedy is the use of hunters to track and shoot the bears. Permission must come through the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Donny Martorello, manager of the agency's Carnivore, Furbearer and Special Species Section, said different approaches are used for different pests, whether they are bears, beetles or beavers. If necessary, hunters are contracted.
The Washington Forest Protection Association provides a pool of people who can use dogs to hunt between 100 and 200 bears a year.
"This is not a recreational hunt," Martorello said. "There is a permit spring bear season" in which dogs are not allowed to be used.
Georg Ziegltrum, animal damage control program director at the Forest Protection Association, said he works with industrial-scale growers, but smaller operations can use the same process of applying for hunt permission. "It's a pretty good, pretty fast, pretty safe process. We usually get a permit within one or two days."
Small landowners suffer a more significant impact from bears.
"One or two (bears) can take 60 to 70 trees in a day," he said. "In four or five days, they can kill a whole acre. Our hearts go out to these guys."
Ziegltrum's organization deals with millions of acres.
"I'm busier than a bee," he said. "I'd like to find a co-op kind of thing and deal with one person instead of 350 individual private landowners."
Dunning said his association could help landowners make connections, perhaps by putting a question-and-answer page or specific links on its website.