ABERDEEN, Wash. — Hungry bears that strip bark from trees in search of food can cause millions of dollars in damage to Douglas fir crops, and timber companies have traditionally hired hunters like Ralph Flowers to control them.
But after killing 1,122 bears, by his own count, Flowers now usually ventures into the woods without his rifle, instead packing a five-gallon pail of bear vittles.
He believes he has found a better way to control bear damage: Feed the creatures.
Lawsuit Seeks Hunt End
His experiments are being watched closely in Oregon, where a lawsuit seeks to end bear killing by timber companies. Also watching are Washington Game Department officials who would like to end spring bear hunting.
"I still love to hunt most anything," said Flowers, who was hired in 1960 to shoot black bears which damaged young trees after emerging from their winter hibernation.
"But," he added, "it gets to the point where you want to think about the animal as a resource, too. It's not like a tree that's renewable. The bear, if you go and take too many of them, you'll find the population in trouble."
So his trusty Remington sits home and Flowers heads for the hills with a mixture of dog food, protein, fiber, sugar and other ingredients that he calls pellet formula No. 6.
Where Bears Are Pests
The food is put out in areas where bears have become pests during the April-June period that falls between hibernation and the time when berries ripen.
Though not all bears eat tree trunks, some appear to be attracted to pinene, a chemical in the bark that has a pine scent, Flowers said. The tastiest tree, he said, is the Douglas fir, which is also one of the most valuable of species to timber companies.
In feeding, the bear strips the bark and scrapes the tree with its teeth, severely damaging or killing it. And most bears can't eat just one.
"Damage can be astronomical," said Stu Bledsoe, executive director of the Washington Forest Protective Assn., whose members include big and small timber companies and landholders, including Weyerhaeuser. "It can be in the millions of dollars statewide."
Up to $20,000 Damage
Cathy Baldwin, spokeswoman for Willamette Industries in Portland, Ore., said a single bear can cause up to $20,000 damage in a year.
Willamette Industries is one of three companies in Oregon being sued for killing bears to protect trees. Although Flowers' bear-feeding work was studied as a possible method of controlling damage, Baldwin said it was still considered too experimental to trust, and killing was the only sure remedy for problem bears.
The suit seeks an end to the hunting and at least $11,000 in damages. The money would be used in a research program to control bear damage to trees.
In the case, Willamette Industries, Starker Forests and Hull-Oakes Lumber Co. were sued for having had 13 bears near Alsea, Ore., killed, at a cost of $6,000, Baldwin said.
The suit was filed by Cathy Sue and Roger Anunsen of Salem, who received the support of the Fund for Animals.
'Left No Alternative'
Anunsen said that the Fund for Animals, headed by writer Cleveland Amory, had agreed to feed the bears with a program like Flowers' but that the timber companies rejected the offer. "That left us no alternative but to file suit," she said.
Amory said he wasn't happy with Flowers' hunting background but was pleased with the feeding proposal.
"He has decided there must be a better way (than killing the bears), and I think he has found it," Amory said.
Flowers works for the Washington Forest Protective Assn., which hired him as a hunter and in 1975 named him its animal damage control director.
Scars on his scalp, hands and arms testify to maulings by wounded bears in 1965 and 1972. "Old bear did what comes naturally, trying to save his life," Flowers said.
His work the past two springs on test plots, mostly on the Olympic Peninsula, has shown promising results, Flowers said. Damage was down 87% to 100% in some test areas, he said, giving credit to the new food formula.
"All the bears really go for it," he said. "We put out 300 pounds last year; this year, 1 3/4 tons. That's the secret--keep their bellies full."
One bear in a test area, however, continued to damage trees after eating Flowers' feed. "To me, he was a pinene addict," Flowers said. It was the only bear he had to shoot within a test area this year.
It costs $600 to kill a bear, Flowers estimated, while feed alone might come to $100 to $300 per bear.
"If you can feed him for $100 to $300, you've still got the bear, you've still got the trees, and the public is happier with you," he said.
18,600 Bears in State
Rolf Johnson, big game manager with the Washington Department of Game, said there are about 18,600 bears in the state.
Black bear numbers grew after World War II, Johnson said, in part because logging practices opened more areas for berries. Bears then numbered about 40,000.
Killing of black bears to stop tree damage has reduced their populations in some areas below levels that those areas could support, given the available space and food supply, he said.
"We believe the bear populations could increase over one-third of what they are now," he said.
Initiative on Ballot
Washington voters will consider Initiative 90 this November, a measure that would provide state money for an expanded bear-feeding program. Johnson said he had tentatively budgeted $14,000 for bear feeding over each of the next two years, if the fish and wildlife initiative passes.
If feeding is successful, said Johnson, it could mean an end to the state's spring bear hunt, which is concentrated in areas where bears have been a problem stripping trees. A fall bear hunt of three months would continue.