Bear sight­ings on Joint Base Lewis-McChord pretty com­mon

The News Tribune - - Local - BY AB­BIE SHULL ab­bie.shull@the­new­stri­bune.com

While the iso­la­tion of COVID-19 has caused an in­crease in on­line dis­cus­sion among the res­i­dents of Joint Base LewisMcCho­rd and more peo­ple have been re­port­ing bear sight­ings on base, the JBLM Depart­ment of Emer­gency Ser­vices says there hasn’t been a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in the num­ber of ac­tual bears on base.

Bear sight­ings are a fairly reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence on JBLM, and they nor­mally aren’t a nui­sance. There are all kinds of wildlife that move through the in­stal­la­tion ev­ery day, ac­cord­ing to Ted Solonar, the Deputy Di­rec­tor of Emer­gency Ser­vices.

“Just see­ing a bear run­ning across the street is def­i­nitely not a real risk,” Solonar said. “You may see more of that this year, to be hon­est be­cause a lot of ur­ban ar­eas ba­si­cally shut down. Not a lot of ac­tiv­ity, not a lot of noise means more move­ment.”

But Solonar said the real con­cern is when bears set up res­i­dence in the woods near JBLM and travel to res­i­den­tial parts of the base be­cause they know there’s a con­sis­tent source of food.

“That’s an on­go­ing prob­lem from an en­force­ment stand­point be­cause if peo­ple leave their pet food out or bird feed­ers out or trash cans open, the bears are look­ing for that food,” Solonar said. “That’s when we typ­i­cally see them fre­quent­ing hous­ing ar­eas.”

Solonar said the first step in get­ting rid of these bears is to elim­i­nate their food source — mean­ing keep trash cans closed, prop­erly clean up pub­lic ar­eas and keep pet food in­side. This makes the bears want to leave on their own be­fore they be­come com­fort­able with peo­ple, Solonar said.

If the bears don’t leave on their own, that’s when DES sets up a hu­mane trap. They fill the trap with fruits or sweets from the commissary to lure the bears into a huge cylindrica­l en­clo­sure. Once the bear is in­side, door shuts and the bears can be safely trans­ported to a new lo­ca­tion.

Two bears have been trapped this year and re­lo­cated to re­mote train­ing ar­eas off base. Through an agree­ment with the Washington State Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife, fu­ture bears will be tagged and a bi­o­log­i­cal sam­ple will be col­lected be­fore they’re trans­ported to the Mount Rainier Na­tional Park area.

Once the bear is trapped and trans­ported, of­fi­cers will do some­thing called a hard re­lease, which Lt.

Eric Barn­hart, a con­ser­va­tion law en­force­ment of­fi­cer, said can look harsh be­cause there’s lots of shout­ing and yelling, but it’s im­por­tant that the bears have a healthy fear of hu­mans so they limit the risk of hu­man and bear con­tact. The bears aren’t harmed by any of these ex­er­cises.

Once they choose a spot to re­lease the bear, of­fi­cers use non-lethal rounds called cracker rounds to scare the bears. They shoot these rounds at the ground, which causes them to make a loud pop­ping sound, hope­fully scar­ing the bear into run­ning away. Of­fi­cers will also shout at the bear, from a safe dis­tance, and use bear-trained dogs. Barn­hart said the hard re­lease op­er­a­tion is chore­ographed to scare the bear so the bear doesn’t ap­proach peo­ple in the fu­ture.

“Un­for­tu­nately, the more com­fort­able the bear gets in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple the higher the prob­a­bil­ity is they’ll get into a sit­u­a­tion where the bear could lose it’s life,” Barn­hart said. “And that’s what we’re all try­ing to avoid.”

Be­cause of the con­stant ro­ta­tion of the pop­u­la­tion on JBLM, DES does a pretty heavy pub­lic in­for­ma­tion cam­paign ev­ery spring to pre­pare peo­ple in the event of a bear sight­ing, said Col. Omar Lo­mas, the 42nd Mil­i­tary Po­lice Bri­gade com­man­der and di­rec­tor of the Depart­ment of Emer­gency Ser­vices. That was es­pe­cially im­por­tant in 2020 be­cause this was the first bear sea­son for all of the fam­i­lies who moved in 2019.

Lo­mas said lots of fam­i­lies came from Ge­or­gia, Florida and Texas where bears are un­com­mon. DES wants to decrease the fam­i­lies’ anx­i­ety and fear of bears and make sure they know that see­ing bears on base is com­mon­place.

There are signs on base and res­i­dents should watch the JBLM Face­book for posts about any fu­ture sight­ings.

JBLM's Depart­ment of Emer­gency Ser­vices

Hu­mane traps like these are used when bears are fre­quent­ing pop­u­lated area of JBLM. Depart­ment of Emer­gency Ser­vices of­fi­cers use fruit to lure bears into the trap.

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