Bruin Trouble

What's Happening To The Bear Population On Mount Lemmon?

TALK ABOUT BITING the hand that feeds you.

The tragedy starts with stupid people and trashy food habits. It ends with yet another bear yanked from its home turf. Or worse; according to one animal activist, "A fed bear is a dead bear."

Unfortunately, as Arizona's population explodes, remote bear habitat shrinks. That makes more friction between bruins and people inevitable. It comes down to a numbers game: second only to Nevada in speedy growth, Arizona's human population leaped by 2.4 percent in the 12 months preceding last July.

As for the black bear count (the only species currently inhabiting Arizona), exact numbers seem slippery. According to one Arizona Game and Fish staffer's best estimate, the state is home to between 2,500 to 3,000 of the animals.

Take that bipeds-to-bruins ratio, throw in a batch of "problem bears," and you have a dicey dilemma for the Game and Fish Department. Not only must the agency constantly find new homes for animals with delinquent tendencies, but it does so under the watchful eye -- and questionable agenda -- of a five-member Game and Fish Commission. That thoughtful body sets department policy.

A majority of commission members -- Hays Gilstrap, Mike Golightly and Bill Berlat -- are true men's men, each proudly touting their affiliation to Safari Club International, whose members have been cited for illegal hunting practices, including the trophy killings of endangered species. (On his résumé, Golightly boasts that he "harvested the Arizona Big Ten Game Animals.")

Gilstrap was appointed by Gov. Jane Dee Hull, while Golightly and Berlat are left-overs from the Symington administration.

No doubt some fine wildlife philosophy waxing from that bunch.

Given such masters, it's hardly surprising that the Game and Fish Department often seems confused about its own mandate, with various officials contradicting one another. Such disorder is apparent with the agency's alleged "lethal bear removal policies." According to one insider, the agency has embarked on a quiet quest to significantly reduce Arizona's black bear population, thereby making the state's recreation areas safe for a burgeoning population.

Of humans, that is.

If that weren't enough, AGF must also carry out its bear program within the dictates of the U.S. Forest Service, which controls most of the state's bear-appropriate real estate. Throw in rural folks toting their own beef -- pun intended -- about having big beasts grousing through their back forty, and you find bears resolutely wedged between a regulatory rock and a political hard place.

It leads to plenty of questionable calls. According to dark rumors, it can even mean placing troublesome animals in hunting areas at the height of shooting season -- a practice that AGF officials strenuously deny. But an internal department memo obtained by the Tucson Weekly suggests otherwise. Under the agency's Wildlife 2000 Strategic Plan, officials will "Implement hunt structures to direct harvest emphasis towards areas with high bear populations and where depredation and nuisance complaints are substantiated."

In plain English, instead of removing problem bears, they'll be shot by hunters.

Whether by bulldozer or bullet, it seems, the animals are bound to lose.

BEAR HYSTERIA HIT a fever pitch following the 1996 attack on Mount Lemmon that mangled teenager Anna Knochel and cost the state $2.5 million out-of-court. The Forest Service reportedly settled, recently, for something in the range of $400,000.

Ever since the mauling, questions have only grown over bear removal tactics by liability-nervous game officials.

The lack of concrete bear numbers doesn't help. In the case of Mount Lemmon, for example, it can allow officials plenty of wiggle room when they're accused of removing an excessive number of bears from the area. After all, how many is too many when you don't know where you started from?

Bears aren't alone in this gray zone. "We're discovering the same thing about a lot of critters, including lions," says Nancy Zierenberg, director of Wildlife Damage Review, a government watchdog group. "It's all professional guesswork. They (Game and Fish) do not have (population) information, and what studies they've done have been very area-specific."

The agency then extrapolates from those limited studies, creating crisis-oriented policies "instead of looking at habitat issues, which are the real problem," she says. "Ultimately, they just shuffle wildlife around, which is absolutely ludicrous."

It's a bureaucratic Catch-22 that demands a solution, she says. "If we're going to have effective wildlife management, then (AGF) has to be able to do something with habitat that wildlife depends on, because it's so disjunct right now. Game and Fish knows it. But they say 'We can't tell the Forest Service to change fencing, or do this or do that.' It's really asinine."

Outcomes can include incidents like the Mount Lemmon mauling. Or what happened last year in the Huachuca Mountains near Sierra Vista, when at least four bears were killed after "practically knocking on doors of residents who'd built up into some of those canyons," says Zierenberg.

She suggests that AGF may have violated its own policy by killing the animals. Under the agency's three-step hierarchy, bears are ranked from those merely considered nuisances to those posing definite threats.

According to Zierenberg, at least two of the dead Huachuca bears should have been considered low-risk, since they only poked around unoccupied buildings. "That's my understanding," she says. "So it didn't give (AGF officials) an excuse for just knocking them off. They should have tried other things first."

Making matters worse, Zierenberg says it's widely known that "Game and Fish and the Forest Service hate each other. I don't know why. But I've tried to work with the (Forest Service) Catalina District before, and they're real assholes."

As part of a group called the Arizona Bear Coalition, Zierenberg says she tried to hash out new policies with the district even before Anna Knochel was attacked. "Our goal was to force the Forest Service to do people management -- in other words, issue citations (on Mount Lemmon) for trashing campsites, leaving trash around, and feeding bears. We couldn't get them to issue a single one. We tried everything, and they just wouldn't budge."

She says the Forest Service's stubbornness may have resulted from pressure by Mount Lemmon property owners. That heat grew intense when the coalition tried to arrange a public forum on the mountain, which she says was "politically sabotaged. Some of the residents up there who were involved in real estate didn't want the meeting to take place. They didn't want bears on the mountain, period."

The parley finally happened, she says, "and had a pretty good turn-out. Then the Knochel attack occurred, and everything kind of went to hell. But all we were trying to say is, 'You people need to take responsibility, and if you see your neighbors feeding bears, we need to know, because it is a citeable offense.' "

Fran Zimmerman and her husband own Mount Lemmon Realty. She disputes Zierenberg's assertion that Summerhaven folks want all the bears removed, or that a conspiracy against the Bear Coalition ever existed. "They came in with strong-arm tactics," she says. "But they didn't know what it's like to live with ' "trash" bears' like we do up here. Besides, we were working with Game and Fish at the time, and they knew a lot more about bears than coalition members did."

She says AGF officers came in the day after Knochel was mauled and captured four bears "right in the middle of town."

Zimmerman says bears haven't raised much havoc since. But like one Forest Service worker who spoke to the Weekly on terms of anonymity, she also heard rumors that difficult animals were being deep-sixed by placing them in prime hunting areas. As for AGF's inability to come up with accurate bear numbers on Mount Lemmon, "They're lying," she says. "They just don't want to tell you."

So how many bears do remain on Mount Lemmon? According to the anonymous Forest Service employee, the population may have been decimated. "It comes down to this," the employee says. "How far are we going to go to maintain recreational use of the mountain? Does that mean getting rid of all the bears?"

Tom Whetten, a Game and Fish information officer, says he doesn't have an accurate count of Mount Lemmon bears. He says no one does. But only seven bears and their cubs have been removed since Knochel was attacked, he says, one to the Apache National Forest near Clifton-Morenci, others to forest areas around Prescott. Three more were removed to sites he wasn't sure of, and at least one bear has been poached in the Catalinas over the last three years.

But placed in context, the numbers reflect a strident response to the attack. According to internal AGF documents, 20 bears in the Catalinas were killed or removed over the eight years between May 21, 1988 and July 22, 1996. But the seven animals Whetten refers to were killed or relocated within three days of the Knochel incident. They include the animal that mauled her.

Which raises two questions: Did Mount Lemmon sprout a crop of vicious, "harvest-ready" bears in only four days? Or were AGF's wildlife managers simply reacting to public hysteria?

AGENCY OFFICIALS SAY their practices have remained consistent. Complaints about that policy most likely come from "some in the community who aren't in favor of us euthanizing a bear on occasion," says Gerry Perry, AGF regional supervisor.

Still, following the Knochel attack, "we have been looking much more closely at our nuisance bear policy to make sure it's addressing our needs, and addressing the possibility of more liability in the future," he says. "There have not been any changes to the bear policy yet. I'm not sure there will be, but we've been looking at that."

Among those second looks is a proposed statement on Wildlife Declines and Predators, again contained in an AGF memo. Perhaps more poignantly than any other document, it heralds the final triumph of man over beast in Arizona's outback, as expressed by government policy.

The memo starts with a note to agency staffers: "We (the AGF Management Team, whatever that is) reached consensus that a Department statement should be developed to clearly state for the benefit of the public and our employees the agency position...Whether or not you personally agree with this statement, remember that it is the position of your agency, and is to be represented in all of your official dealings on this subject."

So, for the benefit of you folks in the public, here it is:

"In explaining to the public reasons for deer and other wildlife declines, we often encounter the perception that this Department and its employees do not recognize predator impacts on wildlife populations," the statement says. "Although predators may not be the sole cause of current conditions, they certainly exacerbate, amplify, and complicate managing wildlife" (italics added).

Frighteningly simple, this Orwellian nugget nonetheless reflects a profound shift in sensibility. Arizona's drastically shrinking wildlife populations are no longer due to voracious habitat destruction by humans, it says. Nope, Bubba, those damn predators are to blame.

Call in Gilstrap, Berlat and Golightly.

Again, Perry "clarifies." "When species populations are at their lower numbers, frequently predators have the opportunity...of holding down a population," he says. "And in some circumstances, predators are able to keep a population from coming back to larger numbers. All that (statement) is, is a recognition of that being the case."

Obviously, those predators include bears. And nowhere is their impact more keenly felt than when people are the threatened population. Indeed, Mount Lemmon's bear diaspora arose in the aftermath of a near war-zone already existing on the mountain. In the summer of 1995, one bear attacked a Tucson woman and her dog, while another bit Fire Chief John Roads as he was strolling through Summerhaven with his son. Then there was an attack on a Brownie, and on Knochel, both in July of 1996.

By the end of the month, the Forest Service had temporarily banned overnight stays in several Catalina campgrounds. Game and Fish officers announced they'd begin citing careless campers under a state criminal nuisance law, and a county bear-feeding ordinance. Meanwhile, Michelle Lopez, a Pima County Superior Court judge pro tempore, agreed to act as a mediator.

She said her job would be to "find a workable way to prevent harmful contact between bears and humans."

To date, that path has gone largely untraveled.

Meanwhile, Whetten says relocated bears -- including those removed from Mount Lemmon -- are never deliberately placed in hunters' sights. It's just that brushes between bears and people mostly happen in the summer, when the animals are fattening up for winter hibernation, and people are out enjoying themselves, he says. "And if we move a bear in the summer, yes, come September, there will be a bear season. Do we do it specifically for that reason? Absolutely not. If we need to destroy a bear, we will destroy a bear. We're not out there playing games."

Again, that may not be the whole picture. According to the minutes from an AGF staff meeting last October, the agency could have another ace up its managerial sleeve. To wit: "Bears. There may be a new policy issued. For now, be liberal. Adult males, 3 years or older, should be killed, if there is an opportunity within existing policy.

"Gerry," the minutes continue, "added that there was a veterinary diagnostic lab conducting work on bears in Tucson. You can send your problem bears there and they will dispatch them and check them for disease."

So instead of being harvested, these lucky bears are merely "dispatched."

According to the Weekly's inside source, "Gerry Perry has come up with a method to legally 'launder' dead bears by creating a questionable study on bear diseases at the veterinary lab at the UA. If the (Game and Fish) department can find a way to construct a lethal policy towards problem bears, they will."

Perry responds that male bears three years of age or older are most commonly responsible for nasty encounters with people. "There is a likely revision of the policy that may include the dispatch of these bears," he says. "What I was communicating to our people there is, if you have a problem bear that is going to need to be euthanized, or we don't have an appropriate release site for the thing, we can take them to the veterinary diagnostic lab to be necropsied."

According to Ted Noon at the UA Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, "Game and Fish does bring bears in for diagnostic purposes from time to time, to see if they're affected by some sort of a disease. But we don't really have a study program at all. Whoever you talked to may not fully understand."

When asked how many bears have been coming through his door recently, Noon is succinct. "Mostly none," he says.

Short of death and an autopsy, remaining options for trouble bears aren't much prettier. They might be relocated into a range already claimed by another animal, meaning the new bear can either be killed over territory, or forced into another area where dominant competitors may be in shorter supply, but people aren't.

"That problem isn't just limited to southeastern Arizona," Whetten says. "It's a statewide problem. There are fewer and fewer places where we can relocate bears. There are more people everywhere, and we have ranchers saying, 'I don't want any more bears in country where I raise my cattle.' "

He says relocation sites are designated at least a year in advance of moving animals, all in conjunction with the Forest Service.

Pat O'Brien, another AGF spokesman, says regardless of the number of bears and where they roam, the Knochel incident and resulting liability twitch "hasn't changed our bear policy (despite contradicting agency memos). We still do the things we've always done" to prevent such encounters, "such as working hard to educate the public."

For example, rangers typically roam Mount Lemmon telling campers how to properly store their food. And Forest Service entry fees for the Catalinas are being used to buy bear-safe food lockers for campgrounds.

Rather than conflict with the Forest Service, O'Brien says Game and Fish has an "exaggerated" level of interaction with the federal department. "We both recognize the need for some type of synchronized efforts so that they're not counterproductive to our efforts, and we're not counterproductive to theirs. We've always had that, but (the Knochel incident) brought it back to our attention that we should do a little more of it."

As for relocating bears, "We're looking for remote areas in prime habitat, where bears are the least likely to get into trouble," O'Brien says. That typically requires concurrence with the Forest Service, and with affected livestock owners.

O'Brien admits it makes for tricky terrain. But at ground zero, "There's a lot of discretion given to the field officer or wildlife manager regarding how an animal will be handled. For example, if a bear passed through a campground or a yard, they may not be seen again, and certainly aren't a problem. But bears that are notoriously coming through on a predictable type of schedule, then yeah, we start dealing with them.

"Our policy is that once a bear is habituated to human garbage and food, it is extremely difficult to relocate. If you get them early, you might have a chance to do something. But once they've been on that course for a while, it becomes extremely difficult to change them."

And the only way to detect repeat offenders is to ear-tag them -- which then "creates a liability problem" O'Brien says. "Obviously an identifiable bear is one we've handled."

That's where close cooperation with the Forest Service becomes crucial. "Our interaction with them is to reduce their liability, to reduce our liability, to reduce the potential for human injury -- and to not have to kill a bear."

Does that include taking all bears off Mount Lemmon? "We've not discussed the concept of completely removing them," he says. "Following the Anna Knochel incident, we had people say, 'This is a recreational mountain, it's close to Tucson...there shouldn't be any bears up there.' We don't agree with that."

Still, none of these agencies have exactly outdone themselves issuing citations. All say they prefer the educational carrot over the punishment stick.

At least on Mount Lemmon, no citations are handed out to half-wits spreading trash around their campsites. Both the Forest Service and the Country Sheriff's Department (with its own bear-feeding ordinance threatening fines up to $2,500, and jail terms of several months) defer to Game and Fish when it comes to issuing the tickets. And Game and Fish doesn't do it either.

There has been one exception, back in 1997: A woman who lived on the mountain was cited for routinely -- and defiantly -- treating bears to ice cream from her back step.

In a plea deal, Patricia Ann Thomas agreed to stop feeding all wildlife except birds. She was also placed on one year's probation, and loaded with 65 hours of community service.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, spokespeople from Game and Fish and the Forest Service say there's little animosity between them that could hamper bear management. "We may not always agree on the way things should be done," says Dean McAlister, Forest Service ranger for the Catalina District. "But we always agree to disagree. There are things that need to be worked through, but I don't see a confrontational relationship going on."

If he's right, then apparently the biggest trouble comes between bears and ever-encroaching urbanity. And the fall-out from that battle is ugly. "The fact is that, if you have a problem bear in southern Arizona, there's really no place to transplant them to," he says. "You take them to another mountain range, the Chiricahua's or the Grahams or something like that, and you've got more recreational facilities around. Or if you have rural communities to deal with."

The upshot? "Most of the time they're destroyed," McAlister says. "One of our messages to the public is, if you help create a problem bear, you're signing its death warrant."

But does that mean government officials, particularly those at AGF, have a scorched-earth policy when it comes to bruins? Absolutely not, says Gerry Perry. "I think that if you look at all the information that occurred about the Knochel incident...the state was sued over our handling of that. The (state) Risk Management Section settled that lawsuit for $2.5 million. Lots of money.

"We'd be remiss in our responsibilities it we did not look at that and make sure we're doing everything possible to protect the public safety, while at the same time being responsible for wildlife management. But we have no agenda not to have bears in this state."

Then again, what's a little harvesting among friends?

Just ask Gilstrap, Berlat and Golightly.

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