WHITE SWAN, Yakima County — Nine black bears have made themselves at home in Fort Simcoe State Park this summer, but they haven’t taken kindly to people trying to take their pictures.
When the bears began aggressively warning people to back off, park officials shut down the facility before anyone got hurt, said ranger Alaric Barney.
“They’ll stomp on the ground to threaten that they want space; they’ll growl,” Barney said.
Bears are often seen in the 200-acre park, nestled in the Cascade foothills on the Yakama Nation Reservation, along with elk, deer and bobcats. But this is the first time they’ve shown such aggressive defensive behavior, Barney said.
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A spokeswoman for Washington State Parks said that aggression stems from the arrival of several large male bears seeking to mate with the females that often frequent the park.
“The problem right now is there is mating going on. They are fighting with each other, trying to harass the cubs, and the females are very protective of the cubs,” said Toni Droscher. “It’s really an important public-safety issue. Bears are nothing to mess with.”
Before park officials closed the park last Saturday, they tried warning people to stay away from the bears, which like to hang out around fruit trees in the park’s most popular areas, near its interpretive center and group campsite.
“People were getting too close to take pictures with their cellphone cameras,” Barney said. “We were afraid that people wouldn’t leave the bears alone.”
In an unprecedented move at Fort Simcoe, park officials shut down the entire park and brought in wildlife agents from the Yakama Nation to try to trap the bears for relocation, Droscher said.
The state’s black-bear population ranges from 25,000 to 30,000 animals, according to state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Bear attacks are rare in the state, with only one fatal and five nonfatal attacks on record between 1920 and 2010.
Bears usually prefer to avoid people, but can behave aggressively when they feel threatened, especially if cubs are present. Barney said that one female at the park has two small cubs and another is pregnant.
When people get within 30 to 50 feet of the 300- to 500-pound adults, the animals start getting agitated, he added.
Bears mate in the summer and feast on tree fruits, berries and nuts this time of year.
Yakima-based state wildlife department biologist Jeff Bernatowicz said it’s rare for bears to get into trouble with people on the reservation.
“I know the Yakama Nation did a radio telemetry study on bears, putting radio collars on them, and they were surprised at how many bears were living in creek bottoms around people who never knew they were there,” Bernatowicz said.
But, bears do occasionally come down into the White Swan area, wandering neighborhoods searching for food in people’s trash.
Becoming accustomed to humans is unsafe for bears as well as people, so when bears are found hanging out in town, the tribe’s wildlife staff typically traps them and releases them in forest areas deep in the reservation, which is closed to most nontribal members.