Into the Wild

Bears on the KP: Stories and Notes on the Local Bear Situation


Last October, for the first time in recent memory, a bear paid a visit to Herron Island. By the time word got out and folks went looking, it was nowhere to be found, swum back to the mainland.

For how big they are and how much they move, it is surprising how sneaky black bears are on the peninsula. Even longtime residents have had a handful of sightings at most. The number of local bears is unknown, but the sightings and stories accumulate: bears in driveways, bears on security cameras, bears in backyard bramble patches, on the trails of Key Central Forest, on the beach of Filucy Bay. A few weeks ago one swam across Von Geldern Cove.

If I were to distill the essential KP bear story, it would be a moment of mutual shock, as when Lynn Larson rounded her deck to find a mama bear and two cubs. While Larson beat a retreat to the safety of her house, the mama bear hustled her cubs up a tree.

One found Britta Brones in her front yard. While she froze among the rose bushes, it circled the house and wound up behind her car. “It was curious, not furious,” she said. It waited for her to go into the house before continuing its foray.

Naturalist Robert Michael Pyle, writing about Sasquatch, specifically the objection that such a creature could not possibly find enough to eat in the wild, turned to bears for comparison, writing, “Here is a beast at least as unlikely as Bigfoot.”

“In bears we have a beast of huge proportions who demands prodigious amounts of food, whose habits are mostly secretive, who is threatening in reputation if seldom in fact, intensely mythologized by our culture and many others, and far more often spoken of than seen.”

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates 20,000 black bears live in the state. They typically stick close to forest cover. Around here, they especially like marshy areas.

Imagine being a bear, waking from hibernation having lost 30 percent of your weight — down to 140 pounds from your usual 200, say — and it is early spring. Not much growing yet. What do you eat? 

The first thing is probably skunk cabbage. For this reason, Native people did not usually hunt bear in spring. (Some did not hunt bear at all, saying it looks too much like a human when skinned.) Indigenous bear hunters preferred to wait until June, when bears climb crabapple trees to feast on fruit. 

Bears eat many things: shoots, grasses, roots, insects, seeds. In summer they love salmonberries and blackberries. In August, according to indigenous hunters, the flesh is bad again; bears raid the two-foot-high towers of thatch ants and gorge on ant larvae. In tent caterpillar years, they strip tree branches of the tents and eat the caterpillars. In fall, bear flesh becomes best as they fatten up on huckleberries and salmon.

That such a large animal can grow fat every year as a forager rather than as a predator is a testament to the productive abundance of our native landscape.

Of course, things don’t always go to script. Bears are generalists, opportunistic. WDFW receives 500 complaints annually about black bears, and 95 percent are “the result of irresponsibility on the part of people.” Unprotected trash, bird feeders, and pet food are windfalls for bears, especially close to hibernation time. While most bears will choose natural foods over human-sourced foods, some realize that human foods are constantly available. They become habituated. This is not necessarily new. Native people declined to hunt bears that hung around their camps, as the meat was thought to be tainted by their refuse. 

This winter a bear around Mahnke Road and Pitt Passage remained active throughout the hibernation period. In February it stole a cooler full of breakfast off Barb Floyd’s porch. “The bear ate the bacon and eggs, left the fruit,” reported Floyd. The bear knocked over garbage cans in broad daylight, even carrying off a supposedly bear-proof can.

Then there is the story around Joemma Beach of a bear that climbed into a hot tub.

Since bear mothers guide their cubs through the yearly cycle of how and where to find food, garbage-eating bears raise garbage-eating cubs. The best solution is for people to keep bear attractants where bears cannot get them. Failing that, and in cases where individual bears become intractable, relocations may occur. Though rare, there have been a few on the Key Peninsula, such as one Longbranch bear that was spending time under the deck of an elderly woman, who was more terrified for her cat than for herself.

Think of this. With their brute strength, local bears could tear up our projects faster than we could curse them if they turned mean on us. But our bears seem to recognize the imbalance in who now controls the landscape and thus practice the art of nonconfrontation. They stay mostly nocturnal, deep in the woods, wanting only to turn tail when they are encountered.

One more thing I’ve noticed in the stories I’ve collected. The bears seen along roads are the ones seen galloping rather than moseying. Bears recognize roads as dangerous.

Fifteen years ago, early in the morning, Richard Wooster was driving up 92nd toward Key Center when a bear came out of the woods. The bear ran next to his car for 50 yards or so. “I could have rolled down my window and tugged his ear he was so close,” he said.

Richard Miller, driving near Penrose State Park, found a mother bear with two cubs. When the mother saw his car, she smacked one cub halfway across the road. It scampered into the trees. “The second cub then started across on his own, but too slowly for mom,” Miller said. “She slapped him hard on the butt and he slid all the way across the road.”

Patrick Pina witnessed a bear hit by a car. The bear slumped on the road’s shoulder. The car sped on. When Pina got out of his car, he saw that the bear was breathing. Staying by his vehicle, he talked to the bear. “It walked right up to my feet like a dog,” he said, “as if to say, thanks for checking on me, and then walked off into the brush.”

“I’d like to think it lived on to be a healthy old bear.”

I think for every mama bear teaching her cubs to raid garbage cans, there are 20 teaching their cubs to be awful careful around people and their brutish cars. Roads are formidable barriers for many types of wildlife. Habitat is not just being lost on the Key Peninsula, parcel by parcel, it is being walled off by traffic and noise.

Despite many efforts to conserve habitat on the Key Peninsula, it remains a dangerous world for a bear, as Martha Konicek can attest. Several years ago she watched as a bear swam across Pitt Passage to reach McNeil Island. People in a power boat noticed it and came to circle and harass it. While Konicek watched, her screams either unheard or unheeded, the bear eventually drowned.