Bear feeding program criticized for baiting

State wildlife experts are concerned practices used to deter bears from peeling trees create new problems, and in the worst cases lure bears to their death, according to hundreds of documents obtained by KING 5.

Every spring, most industrial timber companies in Washington feed bears to keep them from eating trees. It’s called supplemental feeding, and supporters uplift it as a way to deter bears from peeling away timber profits. The Washington Forest Protection Association blames bears for millions of dollars in damage every year.

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“The idea is that when the bears start feeding on these pellets, that they leave the trees alone,” said Georg Ziegltrum, who runs the Animal Damage Control Program for the Washington Forest Protection Association.

For 30 years, he’s worked to stop bears from peeling trees for food. When bears come out of hibernation, they're hungry. The sap underneath tree bark offers a quick sugary snack, except there’s nothing sweet about it for timber farmers, also called foresters.

A man named Ralph Flowers initially started the bear feeding program. His idea was to create a pellet that gave bears something tastier than trees but not as tasty as berries. That way, they’d naturally wean off the mix later in the season when berries are more plentiful. Flowers wanted to stop killing bears. He decided feeding them would help.

When Ziegltrum took over, he admitted he was skeptical of feeding bears in order to deter them from trees. Feeding wildlife is rarely encouraged. Washington is the only state where industrial timber lands set out bear feeding stations.

Ziegltrum set out to research the program, and what he found convinced him it worked. Over four years, his study found seven times less damage on tree stands with supplemental feeding stations compared to stands without feeders.

“We put this supplemental feeding program to the test. That’s when we came up with, this is doing the job,” he said. “If we can protect the trees from the bears peeling, if we can do that without killing the bear, then we say everybody is a win.”

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For decades since, Ziegltrum has overseen the menu. The pellets are produced by Cargill in a facility near Bellingham, but the recipe is managed by Ziegltrum. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has no oversight of the ingredients.

Except, it’s not always a successful deterrent. Bears are still killed regularly between April and June on timber land during what’s often called the “damage period.”

Timber lands obtain permits to kill bears from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife through what's called the Bear Timber Depredation Management Program. One permit allows for the killing of two bears. Foresters qualify for kill permits if just one tree is damaged. That permit also allows them to kill bears the following year as well, even if no new damage is found.

Recently, about 100 bears have been killed annually for peeling trees. Prior to 2011, the number hovered closer to 200 dead bears.

Related: Videos of violent poaching seized by Washington wildlife officials

Documents KING 5 obtained show a common pattern among requests to kill bears that damage trees. Hunters and foresters write that “bear feeder stations are not working.”

Ninety percent of the damage is typically reported in Regions 5 and 6, which covers much of southwest Washington and the Peninsula.

The bear hunts on timber land tend to remove between about 35 percent and 40 percent of the bears harvested in the same regions during the recreational hunting season. The public can’t immediately find that data though, as WDFW does not include the timber hunt harvests in the information shared on its website.

The hunts utilize a form of hunting banned by voters in 1996. Initiative 655 outlawed hound hunting for bears, as voters decided using dogs to kill bears is unethical and unsportsmanlike. It was the same initiative that outlawed using bait to attract bears for hunting.

The law included a loophole however, for the protection of property. Timber lands have used that loophole over the last 21 years to reduce the number of bears near vulnerable trees.

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Internal documents and sources show the hunts are not focused on killing problem bears known to peel trees. Rather, hound hunters kill any bear that happens to cross their paths the day dogs pick up a scent. Critics call it a violation of I-655.

A hound hunter who has helped kill hundreds of bears on timber farms said power and politics have created an elite seasonal hunting club. He asked KING 5 not to disclose his identity after receiving threats on his family and dogs.

He isn’t just concerned about the hunting, though. He says the supplemental feeding program is abused, luring bears to their death as foresters and hunters watch and wait.

“If you’re baiting him in and he’s eating the feed, and he’s going down, coming back and eating the feed, why should he be punished for doing the right thing? I just don’t think it’s fair,” he said. “They’re punishing the bear for doing the right thing.”

In a staff report from 2015, a wildlife conflict specialist alerted WDFW about a forester and hunter who were “knowingly hunting from a bait site but call it a supplemental feeding site.” The report also said, “The Agency has no protocol about baiting bears under the guise of supplemental feeding.”

Baiting bears has been illegal in Washington since voters passed I-655 in 1996, which also outlawed using dogs to hunt bears. Voters decided both practices were cruel and unsportsmanlike. For almost all Washington residents, the rules around feeding bears are strict because of it. Even leaving trash out in bear territory after a warning can land Washington residents in jail.

But there are few rules for timber companies.

"As far as feeding bears, there are no rules around it," said WDFW Game Division Manager Anis Aoude.

In an interview that lasted two hours, Aoude and his colleague Stephanie Simek said WDFW is content with allowing private timber to manage the feeding program.

"The bears are very good at figuring out what is edible and what is not,” he said. “They have evolved through eons of testing foods and eating them. So, if the food is not going to be nutritious for them they're not going to eat it. So, it's not something we would have to regulate, unless it's a poison and then we would see it. Unless it's harming the bear, there really isn't a need for us to be trying to figure out what's in this feed."

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Our investigation revealed WDFW staff does not always agree with that. Reports dating back years show the feeding program is a concern for WDFW staff. Due to a lack of clear regulation and oversight, there's not much guidance for staff about what constitutes a violation or how to deal with it. In a staff report about concerns from 2015, a wildlife specialist writes, "The Agency does not state what acceptable supplemental feed is or how and when it should be deployed."

Reports obtained by KING 5 from 2015 and 2016 expressed concern about a timber farmer, Jim Murphy of Timber Services Inc., who added cat food and sticky syrup to his bear feed after warnings to stop. He faced no consequences, because there are no rules.

“Mr. Murphy and his trapper Mr. Aschenbrenner, have left two barrel feeding stations up in the area,” wrote Conflict Specialist Matt Blankenship in 2015. “All of which had a pellet form of feed in them and grease spread on the ground below. I cannot speak as to what type of feed they were using in these barrels. The two barrels were 238 feet apart. A bait station was also found near a fresh kill site that consisted of dry cat food and grease. The bait station was 0.1 miles away from the nearest barrel feeding station. The discovery of these active feeding and bait stations, while they currently do not have an active permit, were a concern. With the presence of grease and the feeding and bait stations still up and containing feed, they will inevitably draw a bear to the area.”

Murphy said in an email request for comment:

“Normally when we start a feed barrel we need a beaver or something to show the bear where the feed is. Once the bear is on the feed and stopped peeling we don’t need to attract them to the barrel anymore because they now know where it is. The barrels are not used as bait nor is the attractant to get them started eating from a barrel. Bait is restricted to only certain items. At the time that my trapper was using cat food as an attractant it was not restricted. And I'm not sure that it is restricted at this time only discouraged. The feeding program is a great success it drastically reduces damage. But it does not remove the offending bears that are doing the peeling.”

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Photos: Supplemental feeders

Beaver carcasses are regularly hung above or around feeders to attract the bears, and staff reports from 2016 show cameras are sometimes found pointing toward the pellets.

“They go up. They have a cam on it, a trail cam. They’ll leave it there for a week and find out, ‘OK I’ve got four or five bear coming in,” the hunter said.

Feeding stations are allowed within hunt zones. Foresters are supposed to remove them within the one-mile “strike zone,” the limited area around damage sites where hunters are supposed to take their dogs to pick up a scent. But the total hunt zone is three miles in radius, and feed barrels are allowed in the outer two miles.

Plus, the barrels are not always removed from the strike zone.

In an email KING 5 obtained from May 2015, WDFW Conflict Specialist Tammy Conklin advised Olympic Resource Management that it is in violation of its permit for not removing the feed barrel from the strike zone.

“Essentially your hunters are hunting with bait when the feed barrel is in the damaged area and in this case a few feet from the damage tree coordinates. This is in violation of your permit,” she said.

KING contacted Olympic Resource Management for a response to the allegations.

"ORM is investigating the claims made in the recent KING-TV report regarding timberland black bear management in Washington. ORM will take appropriate actions to ensure that all applicable laws and regulations governing the management of black bears on ORM timberlands are strictly followed at all times," wrote Policy and Environment Manager Adrian Miller.

In an email from 2016, a WDFW staff member describes a picture of pellets dumped on the ground. "This is the large pile of pellets dumped out with a camera pointed at the pellets." Another email from 2016 describes a case where bait bordered feeders while bears were snared. "This case would mostly likely not even be accepted by the Prosecutor due to all of the inconsistencies of the bear damage program...So no detectable crime at this time due to our broken process."

“You’re feeding bears and deliberately attracting them, then authorizing hunts,” said retired WDFW Captain Murray Schlenker.

Schlenker retired from WDFW police last year. He says protocol governing feeders is almost non-existent, and during his tenure, it didn’t matter anyway. There was no way to enforce rules, because timber companies don’t give barrel locations to WDFW. New rules require it, but sources said it’s still not happening.

“The state certainly has no idea what else is being fed. And secondly, not knowing how much is being fed or where it’s being fed, staff are in locations and stumbling on bear feeders that are active. So, they’re walking right in on bears,” he said. “That’s a complete safety concern for our employees. For us not to be worried about that or concerned that we have staff walking into concentrations of bears. That’s remarkable.”

Rules around the legal use of bait are also unclear, according to documents KING 5 obtained. Though I-655 allows agents of the state to use bait to kill problem animals, WDFW now allows the practice for landowners and master hunters. In a staff report from 2016, a wildlife expert complains, "Even if it isn't technically a violation, when over 60-percent of the voting public said they didn't want this, I have a hard time believing we have the authority to allow it. In addition, we are allowing this on property where no new damage or little bear damage is occurring."

For supporters of I-655, the supplemental feeding program borders on a violation of the law when used with hound hunting to reduce the number of bears in tree stands. Lisa Wathne spearheaded I-655, outlawing recreational hunts for bear that use dogs or bait. She was comfortable with the loophole that allowed both to specifically target problem animals, but believes voters had no intention for the practices to continue for population control in tree stands.

In a report from 2015, a WDFW staff member alerts management that a large timber company claimed to have remove its feeders from restricted zones, but after checking, found the barrels still in place.

“That’s baiting. That’s not supplemental feeding. That is baiting,” she said.

Aoude and Simek argue the barrels could be used by poachers if locations were subject to public records requests. However, KING 5 learned the feeders are no secret to poachers. One of Washington's most prolific poaching rings busted in 2007, the "Kill 'Em All Boyz", hunted for bear near the barrels.

As for rules around the removal of barrels during hunts, Simek and Aoude say it leaves trees vulnerable to peeling.

"They remove that feeder barrel, they're also removing one of their tools,” Simek said. "There's a trade-off there. People don't understand that, and it's important to understand that."

Aoude told KING 5 that Washington has a healthy statewide bear population, and that’s all that matters. More oversight for the sake of oversight, he says, would be unnecessary bureaucracy.

“We manage bears on a population level. At this point, the only thing we are concerned about is the number of bears on the landscape and the number of bears harvested," Aoude said. "Bears are doing fine in the state. Their populations are doing just fine, and there's really no need for us to be concerned with individual woodlots.”

Plus, abuses are rare, Ziegltrum says.

“The feeding stations are not bait stations,” Ziegltrum said. “If we used the feeding program as a bait station, rightfully so the public would have an outcry.”

For Ziegltrum, the feeders balance wildlife management and private industry. One of the state’s greatest critics, however, is also the state’s bear expert.

“I do know that the places that I’ve worked on that have had feeders, all around the feeders have been damaged,” Rich Beausoleil said. “We’ve seen four or five different bears using feeders. That brings them right into the stands you’re trying to protect.”

Beausoleil is WDFW's bear expert. He is finishing the state’s most comprehensive bear count to date. His research shows WDFW’s former tally of 35,000 bears is closer to 20,000. He’s also learned more about bear behavior on timber land.

“For two months, they’re using a real small area around the feeders. That could be a concern,” he said. “The general rule is, you feed them and they will come. It’s no different than homeowners with bird feeders and pet food and garbage. If you put food on the landscape, they will come.”

As for the added calories in the pellets, Beausoleil pointed to wildlife research that shows extra food sources make for increased fitness among females – affecting reproductive rates.

“The result of that is that instead of reproducing for the first time at five, maybe they’re reproducing at four,” he said. “More food, more calories, more cubs, more bears.”

More bears to kill would be the opposite of the program’s intent. That’s why Beausoleil thinks it’s time to rethink bear management on timber land.

“These lands that private timber provide, provide habitat in a big way. There’s a lot of land out there that’s helping wildlife,” he said.

KING 5 obtained emails and staff reports over the last couple years showing Beausoleil has tried to partner with the Washington Forest Protection Association for more in depth research.

“You should all know that I tried last year to partner with WFPA on a study to dig deeper into bear damage (at the request of a couple private timber companies, members of WFPA, no longer interested in feeding and hunting),” he wrote in a 2014 email. “But WFPA decided they didn’t want to partner and co-fund the project.”

“I want to try to make this connection of what we know about bears, what we know about biology, bring that to you who know about timber and production and damage, and let’s bring those data sets together to reduce damage,” Beausoleil said. “I think we have enough information that we could help them make improvements. That’s where I’m hoping that we go.”

Ziegltrum doesn’t believe there’s a need.

“This is what it is,” he said. “This will never get better. There is no silver bullet out there.”