ASTORIA, Ore. - Hungry bears that strip the bark off valuable private timber can be hunted and killed every year, and this year is no exception.
Gary Ziak, a road builder for Nygaard Logging, came across the remains of about 10 bears last week in the Jewell Meadows Wildlife Area. The area provides year-round refuge to hundreds of elk, supplying food to keep them off nearby farms and protecting them from hunters. But the refuge also apparently offers "secure" dumping grounds for black bears killed on private timberland.
"This is a dandy here," Ziak said of a bear paw he found mangled, probably when the bear tried to escape from a snare.
"This is unbelievable. It almost makes a guy cry."
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The bears ranged in age from adult males to cubs and their mothers, he said. They had been snared, then shot in the head, months before regular hunting season begins Aug. 1.
"The really bad thing is, there are young cubs there," Ziak said, noting the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife owns the property. "This is animal abuse in the name of science, or in the name of money."
Jewell Meadows Manager Bryan Swearingen said it's considered a "secure place" to discard the remains, some of which are prized on the black market.
As it turns out, big game carcasses will continue building at this local spot as the state unloads bears killed on private forestland in Clatsop County during "bear damage season," typically starting in spring months and ending in late June.
The season starts as hungry bears emerge from winter hibernation, sometimes peeling the outer bark of trees to feed on sugary sapwood layers beneath, said Herman Biederbeck, wildlife biologist for the ODFW North Coast Watershed District.
The trees turn red and can eventually die, he said.
Bear damage to timber stands on private land in Oregon is "conservatively estimated" at
$11.5 million each year, according to the USDA Wildlife Services state office.
"Forestland owners are trying to control damage to their stands of conifers," Beiderbeck said. "The bear parts in the Jewell animal pit, those all came from industrial forestlands on the North Coast."
Matt Higgins of Plum Creek Timber Company manages 115,000 acres of Douglas fir and hemlock trees on the central Oregon Coast. He also represents a group of private landowners. Higgins said bears' harm to the state's timber industry is worse than some people imagine.
A single bear can claw the bark off 40 to 60 trees a day to get at the succulent sapwood, he estimated, sometimes girdling entire trees. "A lot of times, it will kill the tree entirely," he said.
Like sea lions snacking on Columbia River salmon, it's not the entire bear species causing problems. Bark-peeling is a learned behavior, Higgins said, pointing to research by Wildlife Services in Olympia.
"One bear will teach another bear, and then that bear will do it," he said. "There are bears that peel and bears that don't peel. We target peeling bears."
Those commissioned to make the kills are exempt from rules followed by most hunters. While they abide by a set season and submit reports to ODFW, their catches aren't constrained by number, animal age or sex, and they can use bait to lure bears into traps. By contrast, sport hunters pay for limited tags, cubs and sows are protected and bait is prohibited.
State law allows landowners to remove big game animals causing damage to their property. For each bear killed, the salvaged meat goes to charity, a tooth, the gall bladder and females' reproductive tracts to a state research lab and any remains are discarded out of the way on ODFW property, said Biederbeck. In Clatsop County, he said, the "bone pit" is in Jewell.
"We're not trying to hide it, but the likelihood the public will stumble on it is relatively low," he said.