Bear sightings on Joint Base Lewis-McChord pretty common
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.
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.