Contact between bears, people on rise in county

EAGLE POINT — A brash black bear with a taste for horse grain and a nose for mischief crossed paths with country singer Kristy Lee Cook one too many times and found himself on the wrong end of a gun.

Four times the bruin burgled her horse barn in rural Eagle Point, tearing up the stalls and gobbling through garbage cans full of grain before Cook caught up with it on night No. 5 while singing a new tune.

"He was making a nice, huge mess of himself and, obviously, the horses were freaking out," Cook says. "I went out my front door and shot him."

And this is no solo bear story.

State wildlife biologists have discovered a four-fold jump in the numbers of black bears legally killed in the Rogue Valley this year after causing damage or otherwise showing no fear of people in their quest for easy meals.

Eighteen black bears have been shot after trying to break into homes or causing damage to garages or barns from Ashland to Eagle Point and in the Grants Pass area since coming out of their makeshift hibernations in spring, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife statistics.

Typically, the area averages about four such cases a year, and usually they involve bears that are too fond of garbage and conditioned over time to associate humans with food.

But this year's man-verses-bruin confrontations have included bears trying to go through the back door to an Ashland house, raiding a Jacksonville honey farm and eating a pig near Rogue River.

"It's an extraordinary year," says Rosemary Stussy, an ODFW wildlife damage biologist in Central Point. "Some of these bears have been getting away with it for too long, then there's an escalation. Then, they end up getting killed."

Tom Pomes has witnessed that escalation in recent years at his rural Murphy house on 5.5 acres.

Wildlife always has been welcomed at Pomes' house, and he's put up with the occasional damage from a particular black bear knocking down the barbecue or gnawing through bird feeders. He keeps his garbage inside his garage and dumps liquid detergent in his can when it's left out for pickup.

But nothing prepared him for his face-to-face encounter May 5.

That's when he walked to his living room's picture window to discover a large black bear with its front paws on the glass as if it were about to push through.

"The only thing between me and that big bear were dual-pane windows," says Pomes, 60.

He considered shooting the bear with a pistol he now keeps near the window, but the bear left.

After regular returns, Pomes came face-to-face with the bear again early July 10. Instead of running when Pomes yelled and waved his arms, the bear started swaying back and forth as if to challenge him, Pomes says.

"It scared the crap out of me," he says.

He went to get the rifle he keeps ready for bear encounters and returned. The 300-plus-pound bruin continued its apparent challenges, Pomes says. So he shot it.

"It's a shame," Pomes says. "It still breaks my heart to do it. But it was just getting too dangerous."

Wildlife advocate Sally Mackler of Ruch says all it takes is one or two neighbors to stack trash outside to create bear magnets that can cause problems.

Mackler, the Oregon carnivore coordinator for Eugene-based Predator Defense, encourages people to check their neighborhoods for people either accidentally or intentionally feeding bears and creating that connection of people and food.

"We need to double-check our own behavior and not establish that relationship," Mackler says. "Feeding a bear might be to your delight. But in the end, the bear pays the price for it."

And if that doesn't work, Mackler recommends hot wires to guns.

"Bears are smart," she says. "One shock, and they'll go away."

In all, Stussy has logged more than 130 bear complaints this year. All dead bears must be checked in at ODFW offices regardless of their cause of death, and so far she's logged 13 bears killed over damage, four bears killed as nuisances and one — the bear that tried to break through an Ashland back door — as a human-safety case.

Sport-hunters in their spring season logged 19 bears at the ODFW's Central Point office.

Stussy suspects the percentage of bears that don't fear humans like they once did is on the rise.

"There's a domestication of wildlife here," she says. "They're not afraid of us. No one's telling them 'no.'

"They knew what happened when they went near those pioneers," Stussy says. "Different time."

In Cook's case, it was many times too many for a bear that neighbors say has run roughshod over her rural neighborhood for years.

This spring, it started stalking the haunts of Cook, the 26-year-old former "American Idol" contestant and recording artist.

The bear ransacked Cook's barn at night by opening heavy doors, dragging $25 worth of grain away on some nights and just feasting inside on the others, she says.

When Cook tied the doors shut, the bear found a side entrance.

"That bear was smart," Cook says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail

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