Wildlife experts urge calm about Vashon-Maury bear

Bob Rice stands next to his demolished bee hives, which he put up in April. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Bob Rice stands next to his demolished bee hives, which he put up in April.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

A black bear making its way across the southern reaches of Vashon and Maury Island has delighted residents, scared a few, intrigued wildlife experts and underscored the need these wide-ranging animals have for habitat.

The bear has also upset at least one Islander, beekeeper Bob Rice, whose six hives were apparently knocked over and destroyed by the bear in a wooded area above Neill Point on the southern tip of Vashon.

Surveying the remains of his hives — frames, boxes and the carcasses of thousands of bees spread out across the ground — Rice said he’s frustrated by the situation but doesn’t want to see the bear killed by state wildlife officials.

“But I’d like it if they trapped and removed it,” he said.

Trouble is, there are few places state wildlife biologists can take a bear right now.

The remarkably heavy snowfall this past winter means much of the region’s foothills remain buried in snow, where there are few berries, buds or other food for a bear to forage on, said Sgt. Kim Chandler, who handles King County wildlife issues for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

The high snowfall is displacing some bears, Chandler said; the department is getting lots of calls from residents in Sammamish, Issaquah and Carnation who are seeing the large animals pass through their backyards. It also means they have no place to take a bear that needs to be moved — either from Vashon or eastern King County.

“Even if we could trap him, we’re between a rock and a hard place because we have absolutely no place to put these bears right now,” he said.

Adding that Vashon actually has plenty of good habitat for the bear, Chandler encouraged Islanders to make peace with this rare visitor, an animal that is largely benign and mostly afraid of people. If Islanders don’t or if the bear creates problems, he said, the bear would meet an untimely end.

“At this point, we’d have to kill it,” he said.

The bear was first spotted on Vashon at the end of May — almost exactly a year from the date when the last bear made its way to Vashon — when it was seen on Maury Island. Since then, there have been only a handful of sightings — for the first week or so on Maury and then, in the last week, on the southern tip of Vashon.

Margot Veidt, who lives on S.W. 248th Street near the Vashon Island Golf & Country Club, was taking her dog for a walk on Tuesday, May 27, when she saw what she thought was a large black lab going across the street. She took a second look when her dog, which usually bounds off to play with other canines, held perfectly still, she said. When she realized it was a bear, she scooped up her little dog and ran to her house.

“I don’t know if was my hysteria or not, but he looked awfully big,” she said.

Days later, residents in the Pohl Road area near the Tahlequah ferry dock started spotting the bear, at about the same time a humpback whale was making an appearance. Several Islanders spotted it, including one couple who was able to take several photographs, one — a close-up of the animal lying in the grass among some rhododendron bushes — that is now making the rounds on the Internet. The couple, professional photographers, denied a request by The Beachcomber to publish the shot.

Then last week, Rice, who lives on S.W. Bachelor Road, paid a visit to his apiary, a collection of six boxed hives that sit above his home on a high, heavily forested bank. Rice, 77, can climb a steep trail to his hives, but usually he drives to it by way of a long, wooded lane — across property recently purchased by King County for conservation.

On Tuesday, his hives were fine. When he visited again, last Friday, he found his apiary destroyed. The hives were knocked on the ground and the boxes split open, giving the bear easy access to the frames that hold the honeycombs. Those frames, many still holding bees, were scattered throughout the area. Most of the bees were dead, largely because of the cold, Rice said.

Rice, who was a beekeeper years ago and just resumed the hobby two months ago, said he felt sick when he saw the sight; it will cost him more than $600 plus hours of work to rebuild his apiary. He knew instantly a bear was the culprit; beekeepers often share anecdotes and information about bears and their impact on bees.

Holding up one of his frames, Rice pointed to fresh indentations in the wood — claw marks, he said. Bear scat was also nearby.

He said he didn’t begrudge the bear — but its presence, should it remain, will mean he has to install an electric fence around his hives.

“There’s certainly enough open space for bears,” he said. “But it would change the way we keep bees.”

Others who pay close attention to wildlife on Vashon agree that the Island has enough contiguous swaths of forestland to sustain a black bear.

T Martino, the director of Wolftown, which often rescues wildlife on Vashon, said this bear seems savvier than last year’s visitor, which was spotted frequently. Like the last one, this bear probably came to Vashon from the Kitsap Peninsula during one of the recent low tides, she said; but it made it all the way to the southeastern corner of the Island with no reported sightings — a feat last year’s bear did not accomplish.

She urged Islanders to relax about this animal and be smart about it. People, for instance, should not leave any dog or cat food outside, batten down their garbage cans and empty out their bird feeders. A bear could help the Island’s ecosystem, she added, by eating carrion that might otherwise spread disease.

“Part of our responsibility is learning how to live in a place that has wild animals,” she said. “We don’t want him to become habituated to people. That’s where bears get in trouble.”

Chandler, with WDFW, also encouraged Islanders to try to accept the bear and take its presence in stride. Black bears, which are largely vegetarian, don’t attack cats, usually run from dogs and have attacked people only very occasionally, he said; indeed, every incident of a bear attack in this area in the last few decades has stemmed from a hunting incident gone awry, he said.

“Don’t make it so that we have to trap and kill the bear,” he said. “Do everything right to make sure he doesn’t get in trouble. Because it’s not the bear’s fault.”

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