OYSTERVILLE - Is Monte Miller - the man state officials accuse of causing the largest bear removal case in state history - a nature lover or a menace?
Talk to the people in this tiny Long Beach Peninsula village and you’ll hear both points of view. And just about eve r y b o d y here is talking about the 10 black bears that were recently euthanized or relocated after years of being hand-fed by the 71-year-old Miller.
“I don’t know how you live long enough to have gray hair and not know that feeding bears is the worst thing you could do for them,” said Sydney Stevens, who has watched the number of bears in town increase and become more bold. “He might as well have shot them as feed them.”
“I’ve lived here six years and only had my garbage knocked over by bears twice,” counters Lee LaFollette, who lives near Miller on Stackpole Road less than a mile from the Oysterville Store and post office. “I don’t call that a bear problem. ... I don’t see that as something that should bring people in here to exterminate bears.”
As for Miller, the Army retiree is mad as heck at state officials who he says have lied about his actions and lied to him about their plans for the bears.
“The state lied to everybody,” Miller said Thursday outside a modest home with a pack of raccoons running around and under his front door. “The state is blowing this whole thing out of proportion.”
Miller and his wife Esther have lived in the area for 20 years and started feeding the black bears dog food about 10 years ago. They never felt threatened or afraid, he said, and the bears only appeared after acres of berry fields were wiped out as the rural area was developed.
The bears would eat about 150 pounds of dog food a week, which averaged to $4,000 a year, he said. Soon, other residents started coming by to watch the feedings on Miller’s heavily wooded lot. They’d bring children and out-of-town relatives and take pictures, he said.
Residents even gave some of the bears names such as “Mama 3” for a sow with three cubs or “Volkswagon” for a particularly large male bear, LaFollette said.
“So, really, we were probably all part of the problem,” he said.
Two weeks ago, Miller said, state Department of Fish and Wildlife officials showed up and told him to stop feeding the bears so they could be trapped and relocated. He said he’d never been asked to stop before and certainly wasn’t hiding his activities.
But as they encountered the bears last week, state officials said some were just too just dangerous to be relocated. One bear had broken a neighbor’s garage door looking for trash, and when bears get that aggressive they’re not safe in any setting, said Mike Cenci, deputy director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Five bears were killed. Five others, including cubs, were transferred to Mount Rainier National Park.
It was the largest bear removal in state history.
“Removing 10 bears in four days, that’s unprecedented,” Cenci said.
He added it was unlikely that officials caught all the “problem” bears. Miller said he had been feeding 15, not 10. So far only two have returned, Miller said, and he’s scaring them off instead of feeding them. In fact, he now wishes he’d never fed the bears in the first place.
“Do I regret it? Oh yeah,” he said shaking his head. “Hindsight is a wonderful thing.”
It’s not just Oysterville with a bear-feeding problem either.
The Ilwaco City Council will hold an emergency meeting Friday to vote on creating a city ordinance banning feeding of wildlife after bears and raccoons became a nuisance. Some states ban the feeding of wildlife but Washington doesn’t, so city officials have to create their own laws if they want the practice stopped.
Cenci said wildlife officials have pushed for a statewide feeding ban for several years and will continue to do so again this year.
The problem with feeding bears, he said, is they lose their natural fear of humans. Anyone encountering a black bear is told to try to appear bigger to scare the bear off while slowly backing away. Bears used to being fed, though, aren’t scared and become unpredictable and dangerous when encountered, Cenci said.
“Black bears eat people, they can kill you,” he said.
Several Oysterville residents said Miller probably shouldn’t have fed the bears, but they’re also angry the state euthanized any of the bears.
“I’m pro-bear, I think it was murder,” said Susan Holway.
LaFollette said despite the rumors flying around town, he never saw anyone but Miller feed the bears and he never had a problem with them when he’d see them ambling about on his morning walk.
Others, like Stevens, say the bears were getting out of control.
A neighbor told her one bear followed Stevens and her husband down the street as they walked to the post office. The bear was just 4 or 5 feet behind them, Stevens was told.
“If I’d have looked back and saw him, I’d have had a heart attack,” she said Thursday. “And I was always afraid some little kid would get between a mother and her cub.”
“I like to walk at night but I had to rethink that,” added Diane Butterll who moved to town in January. “I feel more comfortable now.”
Bob Jacobs said he never had problem with the bears himself but worried that they no longer seemed fazed when they saw humans.
“Usually a bear sees you and boom, they disappear real fast, but lately they were just brazen,” he said. “Ten bears in this little area is too many.”