Neighborhood riled after bear shot, killed

BLACK BEAR This photo was taken of the black bear about two weeks ago by a neighbor who is now mourning its death. Photo courtesy Liz Finger

BLACK BEAR This photo was taken of the black bear about two weeks ago by a neighbor who is now mourning its death. Photo courtesy Liz Finger

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

SUNNY BRAE – A bear was shot and killed outside a Sunny Brae house Tuesday night, July 26. The black bear, a young male, was seen in the street at about 9 p.m. by the home’s resident, Matthew Hartman, outside a low wire fence bordering the front lawn.

Hartman said he fired a single shotgun round at the bear from his front yard, striking it in the upper chest. The shot didn’t immediately kill the animal. Mortally wounded, it wandered about 100 paces up Beverly Drive to a clearing at the end of the dead-end street, where it collapsed and died.

Hartman said that the bear was “down here at my fence, trying to get my dogs.”

“The bear’s been a nuisance for the last couple of years that I’ve been here,” Hartman said. “Usually my dog manages to scare it off.”

Hartman rents the house on Beverly Drive, where he lives with his four children and two dogs, Abby and Bear. Another tenant lives with two children in the house’s converted garage residence.

The next morning, Hartman reported the incident to the California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) as well as the City of Arcata. Wednesday afternoon, July 27, Warden Matthew Renner, another CDFW agent and Hartman used ropes to lift the animal’s carcass into an agency truck and haul it off. A small patch of fresh blood in the dirt marked the spot of the bear’s demise.

Renner determined that the shooting was justified, and issued Hartman a depredation permit, which retroactively allows the kill, on the spot.

“He did his investigation that morning and determined that the homeowner was within the law for shooting the bear,” said CDFW spokesman Andrew Hughan.

While baiting a bear and then shooting it is illegal, an unkempt yard and adjacent public areas littered with food containers and other fragrant garbage may also be a violation.

“Intentionally placed attractants is illegal under regulations that prohibit feeding and additional regulations prohibit attractants for purpose of baiting to take animals,” Hughan said. “ Chronic and careless disregard for placement of what can be creating a nuisance attractant can be a violation under feeding as well.” But not in this case. “He felt a legitimate threat to his safety and property,” Hughan said. “You’re allowed to protect your health and safety.”

Renner said the smallish black bear, perhaps four and a half feet long, was a “boar,” or young male. The carcass, later identified as a 250 lb. California black bear (U. a. californiensis), was donated to Humboldt State’s Deptartment of Biological Sciences for study.

Neighbors, some of them angry at the killing and the use of a firearm on their street, disputed Hartman’s claim that the bear had been attacking. They said that bears, along with deer, raccoons and even mountain lions are not uncommon in the heavily wooded Sunny Brae canyon. Like raccoons, the occasional bear usually turns up at night to prowl through garbage bins and devour any pet food left out.

“It’s just kind of heartbreaking,” said resident Megan Greene. “Anyone who has moved to this neighborhood for the past 10 years knows that there’s a bear presence. It’s not a problem if you take care of your trash.”

According to Greene and several others, Hartman’s house is a garbage-infested eyesore. The neighbors say they have filed four nuisance complaints with the City of Arcata, as well as two aggressive animal complaints over one of Hartman’s two dogs.

The complaints could not immediately be verified, but a Public Records Act request for the information has been filed with the city, which has 10 days from last Wednesday to provide any pertinent records.

On the day after the incident, material appearing to be household garbage was strewn about the area of the house, which is at end of the dead-end street. Discarded food wrappers, plastic bottles, clothing, toys and other debris littered the front yard and gutter out front of the house, while more items could be seen among the foliage across the street. Just up a forest trail from where the bear died, a plastic garbage bag has been dragged and ripped apart, apparently by some kind of animal, its contents littering the area.

The material’s origin is not known, but neighbors allege that some of the loose garbage came from the house Hartman’s family lives in.

“You don’t leave trash in your front yard and take it out on the bear,” Greene said.

Another neighbor who asked not to be identified claimed to have been dealing with the trashy house for years. “I pick up their garbage all the time,” the neighbor said. “That bear was no threat to anybody.”

The neighbors held that abundant household garbage littering the area around Hartman’s home created an attractive nuisance that drew in the foraging bear. Hughan discounted that argument.

“It doesn’t matter if the property is as well maintained as the neighbors think it should be,” he said. “Our first responsibility is the safety of human beings. Safety of humans is paramount to the safety of a bear every time.”

Hughan said that the investigating wardens are well experienced in separating truth from fiction, and that Hartman’s concerns proved valid. “They’re cops,” he said of the CDFW field personnel. “They’ve heard everything, and they know right away whether it’s legitimate or not.”

CDFW Lt. Brent Chase said the preferred method for dealing with a nuisance animal is to call CDFW before taking action. An agency representative would be sent to the location, and if unsecured garbage were found, the resident would be advised to clean it up to minimize the attraction to any wild animals. “We don’t just give a guy a permit to kill a bear,” Chase said. “They have to take measures.”

Despite emerging evidence of the presence of an attractive nuisance, the incident won’t be revisited.

“No,” Hughan said in response to a question about revoking the depredation permit if a history of negligent disregard by the resident was established. “The homeowner was within the law at the time. Public safety is the number one priority and no matter what caused the bear to come into the yard or for him to feel threatened it’s still his right, and legal to protect yourself from an animal.

Hughan said he had received calls from area residents asking about the incident. “I understand the emotions,” he said, but added, “As police would say, this is a good shot.”

Hughan said the official incident report will be available early next week.

The Arcata Municipal Code Title IV, Chapter 2, Article 2, Sections 4117 through 4121 defines allowed firearm use in Arcata. The code prohibits the discharge of weapons within city limits, with exceptions for police officers, firing ranges, hunting waterfowl in certain areas and “by any person while lawfully engaged in protecting life or property.”

Violations are deemed a misdemeanor. Arcata Police Sgt. Todd Dokweiler said any decision on prosecution for the shotgun use “would come down to intent.”

Dokweiler said Arcata Police would be involved “only on the periphery,” with CDFW taking the lead on the investigation. He said Arcata Police would assist if CDFW asked for assistance on matters outside the primary scope of their inquiry.

Dokweiler said Hartman called both DFW and, at about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, July 27, and the City’s Environmental Services department. Environmental Services notified police, which referred the matter to DFW, which by then had been called by Hartman.

CDFW’s website says that California is home to an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 black bears.

Consequential encounters with bears and other wildlife are not uncommon along Arcata’s forest/urban interface. Experts recommend securing food and garbage, as bears possess an acute sense of smell, seek out easy sources of nutrition and, once habituated, will return to areas where food is readily available.

Wildlife professionals often caution the public that “a fed animal is a dead animal.”

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