Wildlife agents: Don’t feed the bears

"He was about 500 lbs," said taxidermist Sean West of Hayden as he talked about the black bear mount that he donated to be part of a traveling bear education exhibit, a cooperative project of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Inter-agency Grizzly Bear Committee and the Center For Wildlife Information. He delivered the mount to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game office in Coeur d'Alene on Tuesday, December 6, 2011. (Kathy Plonka)

An appetite for dog food was the black bear’s undoing. Wildlife agents killed the 500-pound male after it engineered a series of crafty break-ins at cabins in Southwest Washington.

Now, it’s an educational mount that will remind people of the perils of feeding wildlife and teach them how to differentiate black bears from grizzlies.

Hayden taxidermist Sean West donated his time to create the full-sized mount, which depicts the bear walking on all fours, ears alert. The mount was on display Tuesday at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game office in Coeur d’Alene. It will become part of a traveling bear exhibit in Washington and North Idaho.

“You can’t judge a bear by size and color alone,” said West, the owner of Captured Expressions Taxidermy. “There are so many mishaps between people and grizzlies. People who live in bear country need to be educated.”

The traveling exhibit will include a grizzly mount, giving people the opportunity to study the differences, said Chuck Bartlebaugh, director of the Center for Wildlife Information in Missoula.

In North Idaho and parts of Washington, the habitat of black bears and federally protected grizzlies overlap. Basing identification on a single bear characteristic can be misleading. Both black bears and grizzlies come in a range of colors, and a hefty male black bear can rival a young grizzly in size.

Every two to three years, a black bear hunter in Washington shoots a grizzly by mistake, said Doug Zimmer, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“They always say, ‘I thought grizzly bears were bigger,’” Zimmer said. “People have a mistaken belief system, based on Hollywood, that all grizzly bears are 11 feet tall, stand on their hind legs and roar. That’s a long ways from the truth.”

The maundering black bear packed on pounds after an elderly couple started putting out dog food for bears in their backyard. Wildlife agents eventually captured and relocated about 11 of the food-habituated black bears, but the one breaking into cabins had to be killed, Zimmer said.

West, whose taxidermy has won national awards, was approached about donating his time for the mount. “He really did artistry on this mount,” Zimmer said. The black bear was so large, that West had to cut down a fiberglass grizzly bear form to spread the skin over.

The skin alone weighed about 250 pounds. “He was typical of the size of grizzly bears,” Zimmer said.

The bear was about 18 years old and had developed a shoulder hump, which is more commonly found on grizzlies. That’s why it’s important to make identification based on multiple characteristics, Bartlebaugh said. Grizzlies, which do more digging, have longer claws. Their faces have a concave, or dished in, look compared to black bears. Grizzly tracks are different and their ears don’t stick up as much.

The traveling bear exhibit is housed in a trailer, which can be taken to hunter education classes and events such as Spokane’s Big Horn Outdoor Adventure Show. The exhibit is a cooperative project between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, and the Center for Wildlife Education. Cabela’s and the manufacturers of CounterAssault Bear Deterrent Spray contributed to the project.

Bears in the exhibit are depicted on all fours, which is how people are mostly likely to encounter them in the wild, Bartlebaugh said.

“We didn’t want an aggressive pose,” he said. “People have bear encounters all the time, and the majority of the time, there’s no conflict.”

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