The black bear that arrived on Orcas over Memorial Day weekend has likely been eluding authorities for some time.
Residents of Blaine, then Ferndale and then the Lummi Reservation (located to the west of Bellingham) reported seeing a black bear in mid-May. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officers set traps that proved unsuccessful. The bear later swam to Lummi Island, where two more traps were set, but he dodged those as well and officers assume he swam to Orcas Island.
At around 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 27, it was seen in the 1100 block of Point Lawrence Road heading toward Obstruction Pass. The bear has been seen by a handful of islanders since in Olga and North Beach. He has been reportedly getting into sheds and garbage cans.
“We have tried to catch this guy but he will not stay in one place for very long,” said WDFW Game Warden Dave Jones, who is confident the bear on Orcas is the same one he’s been trying to catch for weeks. “Additionally he does not seem to have a specific food source that I can set my trap on. I do have a trap set on Lummi Island in the event that he swims back. In the 15 years of doing this, I have never had a bear swim to an island.”
Generally, the bears he catches are two- to three-year-old males and between 150-200 pounds. Jones says this particular one has not been aggressive but “does like chicken pens and the occasional bird feeder.”
“I have no idea if he will stay on the island or not as it appears that he has no limits on where he will go,” said Jones.
The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office is in the process of obtaining a bear trap to safely catch it. If you see the bear, call the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office at 378-4151.
“This helps us track him and it is our hope we can safely apprehend him and the WDFW can relocate him to a more suitable place in the Cascade Mountains,” said Sheriff Ron Krebs in a press release.
Some islanders have wondered if there are multiple bears as the descriptions are varied.
“It is very common to get wide ranges of descriptions when it comes to bears,” said Jones. “The very same bear will be called into me where one person says it 100 pounds and black in color and then the next caller says it is 300 hundred pounds and brown in color. I am extremely confident that we are dealing with one bear in this case.”
The American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) can swim incredible distances and one of the largest populations of the species live a short distance away on Vancouver Island. They live an average of 20 years in the wild, can weigh between 200-600 pound and are as tall as 5-feet, 6-inches. While their diet consists mainly of vegetation, berries and bugs, they will eat fish and mammals, and can develop a taste for human food and trash. According to the Smithsonian’s story “How to Avoid Being Eaten by a Black Bear,” one study estimated that there were 750,000- 900,000 black bears distributed across North America, and their numbers have been growing.
Ruth Milner of WDFW advises residents to lock up their garbage, keep all pet food inside and remove bird feeders.
“This time of year, bears are after calories and you’d be amazed at how many bird feeders attract bears,” she told the Sounder. “Bears are omnivores and seeds provide high-calorie fats so they are easy targets for bears. We have a difficult time convincing people that birds don’t need food from us at this time of year and the best thing to do is take them down to dissuade bears.”
Milner doesn’t expect the bear to stay on Orcas for very long as it will need to find a mate at some point. Its age and sex are unknown but Milner says it looks young and immature in photos. WDFW asks that people not attempt to feed or harm the bear. Shooting it is considered poaching. If you see a black bear standing up on its hind legs, it is just being inquisitive. State wildlife offices receive hundreds of black bear complaints each year regarding urban sightings, property damage, attacks on livestock, and bear/human confrontations. Black bears have been known to attack and kill humans. According to the department’s website, 95 percent of calls about black bears are the result of irresponsibility on the part of people who allow access to trash, pet food, bird feeders, and do not properly store food while camping.
According to “Backpacker” magazine, “In the 2000s, there have been 27 fatal incidences so far in North America, resulting in 29 deaths. 15 were in Canada, three were in Alaska, two were in Tennessee, and single fatal attacks happened in New York, New Mexico, California, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Utah and Montana. Seventeen of those attacks were perpetrated by black bears, and 10 by grizzlies.”
Michele Keyes shared a video of the bear:
Higgy, the Kodiak bear of Orcas Island
The following is from the Orcas Island Historical Museum.
“Higgy” was a cute little guy when he first arrived at Olga, on Orcas Island, in 1910. Brown, furry, and cuddly, Higgy was a Kodiak bear cub (Ursus Arctus Middendorfi) which had been given to Mrs. Rice, proprietress of the Olga Park Inn, by her good friend Ella Higginson, a famous eastern author. Kodiak bears are the largest bear species in the world, attaining a height of 10 feet when standing on their hind legs – but little Higgy. at two months of age and weighing about one hundred pounds, quickly became the pet of the community. Everybody loved adorable little Higgy – until he got away.
When he slipped his collar and headed for the hills near Olga in October of 1910, Higgy was four months old and weighed about 150 pounds. The newspaper reported her loss, and requested anyone spotting him to notify Mrs. Rice so she could retrieve her pet bear. As time passed, and the bear grew, public sentiment about Higgy began to change, as evidenced by a newspaper article of September 1911 which reported a sighting of “the varmint” when he raided a crabapple orchard on the Norris place.
A mere month later, in October 1911, Higgy had become “a monster, with a gray face and an ornery disposition” with breathless newspaper articles reporting that he was now hundreds of pounds heavier than the year before, and that from now on it was “open season on bears, and anyone may go after the big bear on Orcas Island.” The article added the heartfelt plea that “Mrs. Rice would like to have the bear’s pelt if it weren’t too mutilated by the rifle balls and bowie knives.”
Various hunting parties pursued Higgy for two years, with the reports of his sightings related in increasingly hysterical terms. The final report, on June 29, 1912, told of the slaying of the “huge 1100 pound Kadiak (sic) Grizzly which had terrorized the eastern side of Orcas Island for the past two years.” The article continued with “…great stories of the monster’s predations…tales of him carrying full-grown steers in his mouth across Doe Bay Mountain…he was said to pull up apple trees and hold them in one paw while he plucked the fruit with the other. Half a dozen sheep were nothing for one meal.”
Higgy was, so far as is known, the only Kodiak bear ever to reside on Orcas Island until five shots from a .22 gauge rifle, fired by Sam Lightheart, brought “this terrible monster” to an end, and along with it the only bear hunt Orcas Island has ever known.