Bookmark and Share

In memory of Bear 176: ‘An unacceptable risk’
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Gazing through binoculars in the diffused predawn light of a cool July morning, Officer Williams could see that his intended quarry had ingenuously succumbed to the odorous lure he’d left in a portable steel trap the night before. There, just a few yards before him, a conspicuous white ear tag bearing the number “176” confirmed what he suspected. The sub-adult bear that recently showed signs of aggression was now in custody.

Williams sat behind the wheel of his state-issued service truck for several minutes, sipping steaming black coffee just poured from his Thermos. Following a restless sleep-deprived night, he felt tired and barely up to the task at hand, but the recent carelessness of residents in an outlying neighborhood left him with no alternative. This was strike two for the bear, and in Colorado, a bear with two strikes is out.

Just three weeks earlier, with the help of a fellow officer, Williams caught and tagged Bear 176 in the same general area. At the time, the approximate 3-year-old, 300-pound male had discovered the ease of ransacking exposed, human trash receptacles for food, rather than relying on natural forage, including small rodents, grass and sedges, insects and budding fruits.

It seems, as vulnerable bins holding stale bread and pastries, discarded leftovers, melon rinds and the like sat out the night before their scheduled pickup, Bear 176 caught their bouquet and quickly found easy pickings. Sometime in the early morning hours of trash day, he methodically plundered at least three separate containers, scattering their contents far and wide.

When residents complained, Williams tried informing them of ways to avoid further encounters. He suggested trash bins be secured in an enclosed shed or garage until pickup day, and advised against leaving birdfeeders, pet food and other attractants out at night. He warned of failing to clean outdoor grills, and the likelihood that bears might soon arrive with hope of joining the feast.

But apparently, Williams’ advice fell upon deaf ears. Within a week, another receptacle had lured 176 back to the neighborhood, ultimately forcing the officers to trap and tag him, before releasing him some 50 miles distant.

Bear 176 promptly returned, however, and was again drawn to the area, this time by the scent of a grease-encrusted barbecue grill.

The owner, while settling in one evening after a satisfying steak dinner, suddenly sensed a commotion on the back deck and dashed to investigate. At once, he discovered 176 virtually dismantling his beloved high-priced Weber. With only a sliding screen door between him and the surly marauder, he shouted and clapped hands, until the bear abruptly turned toward him. Feeling uneasy with the animal’s apparent disposition, he slowly slid the glass door shut, but not before 176 took a swipe, shredding the screen in the process.

Now, a few days later, Williams had 176 confined to the steel barrel trap. While baiting the corrugated contraption the night before, he quietly hoped the bear would somehow avoid capture and simply move on. But, with nearly 25 years experience as a district wildlife officer, he knew 176 had habituated to human habitat and would continually pose unacceptable risks to the safety of nearby people and property.

What’s more, he knew the bear’s time had all but run out.

With his coffee gone and 176 peacefully subdued in the mobile trap, Officer Williams dutifully followed agency protocol. Without further delay, he carefully backed his truck up to the trap hitch, gently hooked it on and leisurely towed it from the residential district boundary to a remote wooded area just a few miles away.

Once there, he backed the trap and its ill-fated cargo into a suitable location, grabbed a shovel from the truck bed and began digging a pit near the spring door at the rear of the trap. His condemned captive, meanwhile, lay mostly quiet in the portable cage, while only occasionally grunting and snorting dissatisfaction with his inexorable confinement.

In the hour it took Williams to dig an adequate trench nearly three feet deep, he reflected back on previous occasions when other faultless bears were also destroyed as a result of human apathy or ignorance. At once, the still-vivid memories enraged him and he paused for a time, wishing those truly responsible could pay a heavy price instead.

But it was no use. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, it was now his job to act in the best interest of society. Once and for all, it was up to him to end the threat 176 posed on mankind, even as mankind initially spawned the offensive behavior in the bear.

With the hole complete, Williams wiped the sweat from his brow and pulled a long swig of water from his canteen. By then, the morning sun had topped a tree-lined ridge, and its golden rays would soon fall directly upon the scene. The temperature climbed steadily, and it was time to finish this most dreadful deed.

Reaching into the truck cab, Williams gathered the items necessary to prepare a pole syringe with the appropriate dosage of Telazol to immobilize Bear 176. Telazol is actually a combination of two non-narcotic drugs that together serve as a highly effective general anesthetic. While the mixture won’t stop heart function, it will completely incapacitate the bear in about 10 minutes, allowing Williams to remove him from the trap before actual euthanasia.

“Sorry to have to do this, young fella,” Williams softly exclaimed, as he approached the front of the trap and its waiting occupant. “I know it’s not your fault and I wish I could change things, but I can’t. Maybe they’ll treat you better in your next life.”

With that, Williams slowly extended the lengthy device through the steel mesh, as 176 nonchalantly looked on. Then, with a sudden thrust of the pole, the syringe delivered its disabling compound to the bear’s left shoulder. Surprisingly, 176 jumped only slightly and bellowed a few pitiful snarls.

Soon after, as the sun finally washed over the makeshift cage, 176 took slow steady breaths, but otherwise lay perfectly still. To be sure, Williams prodded him with the pole a few times, but saw no appreciable movement. At that point, he returned the pole to the truck, slowly opened the spring door at the rear of the trap and nudged 176 one more time.

Again, with no discernible reaction, Williams grabbed the thick fur adorning 176’s flank and pulled him toward the threshold of the trap. As a hind leg came within reach, he grabbed it and strained to pull the limp form from the trap to the pit. There, with the bear’s eyes wide open, he positioned it for a final decisive blow.

Seconds later, Williams had removed his 12-gauge from the rear window gun rack and returned to the hapless creature. Then, without further delay, he dispatched the animal with a loud crack that sent a single slug to the head. To be sure, he discharged another to the heart, before promptly returning his weapon to the rack.

Therewith, Bear 176 will never disturb area residents again.

Of course, the whole miserable affair could’ve been avoided, and the life of an amazing young animal would’ve been spared.

In Colorado, the Division of Wildlife (DOW) simply asks residents and visitors to avoid attracting bears with garbage and other food sources, and to “bear proof” their homes. Closing all lower-level windows and doors, installing an electric fence around chicken coops, rabbit hutches and areas where livestock feed is stored, and securing garage doors and trash bins are essential in bear country.

Bears have a highly developed sense of smell. While humans may not be able to detect food inside a closed freezer, bears can.?Anyone with a refrigerator or freezer in their garage should remember to keep the garage doors closed.

??To avoid bear problems, the following are additional suggestions offered by the DOW:

• Keep garbage in airtight containers and stored in an enclosed area such as a garage or shed. Place the garbage cans outside just before scheduled pick-up, not the night before. To remove food smells, garbage cans should be cleaned with ammonia on a regular basis.

• At night, take down bird feeders and hummingbird feeders. Bird feeders are common bear attractants. Empty sunflower seed shells and those of other birdseed will still attract bears. Regularly clean up shells under feeder areas.

• Do not leave pet food or bowls outside. Feed pets inside, or bring the bowls in immediately after feeding.

• Do not put food items such as meat, fruit, or vegetables in compost piles. In fact, it’s a good idea not to use compost.

• Clean up fallen fruit from bushes and fruit trees.

• Keep lower windows and doors closed and locked.? Bears have been known to tear screens off, while trying to get to food they odors indoors.

• Install an electric fence around chicken coops, rabbit hutches and areas where livestock feed is stored.

?• Never intentionally feed bears, or attract them to your yard for viewing. In Colorado, it’s illegal to feed bears. Besides being bad for bears, violators will be ticketed and fined.

In memory of Bear 176 and others like him, we must all follow these simple rules. While it will help preserve our precious natural heritage, it will also prevent wildlife officers like Williams from having to carry out a most disturbing feat. Without a doubt, it’ll help them sleep better at night.

chuck@pagosasun.com