Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Seven weeks after the July shooting death of a bear in Sunny Brae, the state Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) has released the investigating warden’s incident report. The document provides little fresh insight into the events of that night, but it does offer an expansive view of the gulf between official ideals and on-the-ground reality.
One new detail: contrary to what was previously reported, the agency did not issue a depredation permit to Beverly Drive resident Matthew Hartman the day after he shot a bear out front of his house. That incorrect information had been provided by CDFW immediately following the incident, with the agency only now correcting the record.
Not issuing a depredation permit appears to have exempted both the shooter and the agency from following best practices for bears, described at length on the CDFW website, as well as possible legal follow-through specified in the state Fish & Game Code.
The reasons are familiar – too few personnel, already overburdened, and a resource-draining criminal justice system. But officials see this case as a legal non-starter, unworthy of any post-hoc effort. Bottom line, the agency staunchly insists that Hartman acted properly, protecting himself and his property as allowed by law.
According to the CDFW incident report, created by Warden Matthew Renner, Hartman initially reported the shooting to the agency by phone. He also notified Arcata Police that evening. Hartman told Renner that close to 9 p.m. on July 26, he “observed a bear in front of his house that was actively attacking his dogs through a small fence.” He said he retrieved a 12-gauge shotgun from his residence and fired one round at the bear using 00 or “double-aught” buckshot. The mortally wounded bear then ran up the street and died.
The next day at about 1:30 p.m., Renner called Hartman, who confirmed details of his first report. Around 2 p.m., the warden arrived at Hartmann’s house. He spoke to two neighbors who had heard the rifle shot, but hadn’t seen what happened.
Renner found the dead bear on city property at the end of the street, and located an entry wound on its left side. Hartman described to the warden “where in front of his house it took place.”
Renner inspected the garbage-strewn area around Hartman’s house, identifying the waste as a probable bear attractant. “I observed trash and garbage in different areas in and around the yard where the bear was shot and where it died,” Renner reported. Hartman told him that the bear “had been around for a few years and had been a problem in the past.”
Renner concludes the incident report by stating, “I told Hartmann that the garbage needed to be cleaned up to prevent any more bear issues in the future and to contact us if bears become a problem again.”
The bear’s carcass was taken to Humboldt State University’s Biology Department, where it will be used for educational purposes.
What was not reported; what was reported that was not
The Fish and Wildlife incident report consists of a one-page form and another half-page of additional narrative with photos of the dead bear. The incident is listed as having taken two hours to deal with. The report is minimal, opaque and confusing as to key details.
• A box on the form labeled “Property Damage/Depredation (initiate the depredation process: Sections 401 and 402, Title 14, CCR)” is checked. But no depredation process was followed or permit issued.
• The form’s “Report Confirmed” box is checked. But the only part of Hartman’s story that the investigation confirmed was that the bear was shot dead. No property damage or any sign of a bear attack is substantiated in the report.
Take, for example, the claim that the bear was “attacking his dogs through a small fence.” The front yard fence consists of flimsy, 4-foot-tall hog wire, which an attacking bear could easily have climbed over, penetrated or ripped down.
The next day, despite the “Property Damage” box on the report also being checked, the fence showed no sign of having been disturbed, nor were the dogs injured.
Nowhere does the report say that the bear ever entered Hartman’s yard. The day after the shooting, he indicated that the bear was in the street during its alleged attack. “It was down here at my fence trying to get my dogs,” Hartman said that day.
Any specifics Hartman may have given CDFW about the respective positions of himself and the bear during the attack aren’t included in the report.
• Looking back on the incident, some residents have wondered why some less-than-lethal measure couldn’t have been taken to scare the bear off, such as yelling at the animal, banging on something or even firing a warning shot.
Fish & Game Code Section 4181, which regulates depredation permits, requires documentation of any nonlethal efforts taken to correct an animal issue. Nothing like that is included in the report, nor is there any note of nonlethal measures having been explained by the warden. But, since no depredation permit was issued, those stipulations apparently don’t pertain.
• No effort was made to find out whether the bear-attracting trash strewn about the residence was a long-standing condition known to authorities. If chronic negligence had been established and adequate warnings given about an attractive nuisance, there might have been a foundation for some sort of legal redress.
It turns out neighbors had complained about the garbage three months previous, but not to CDFW – to the City of Arcata. The Environmental Services Department fielded two complaints about Hartman’s house, both dated April 22.
The first, which came in at 11:06 a.m., reports “garbage in the street,” “garbage on private property and ridge trail” as well as a “problematic trailer.” (The terminus of Beverly Drive, located on Arcata’s lengthy forest/urban boundary, is designated as a future trailhead for the Arcata Ridge Trail.)
The second complaint is logged at 3:51 p.m. It forwards complaints from residents about the “accumulation and improper storage of garbage” which was “spilling out into the road.”
In response, an Environmental Services employee went to the site, but found the problem overbilled. “There really isn’t very much trash, other than a trailer full of crap parked across the street from the house,” the employee wrote, noting that “a couple items seem to have fallen off the trailer.”
The mess wasn’t deemed worthy of a cleanup crew’s time. The rental home’s Woodland Hills owner was identified, and if an Arcata Municipal Code violation was found, a warning letter was to be sent to both the owner and the resident.
But there the city involvement seems to halt, with no letter sent. The city’s response to a Union Public Records Act request yielded no correspondence indicating any further action was taken.
Photos taken at the time show a trailer loaded with bags of household waste and other discards, with food wrappers spilling off and a pair of bulging black plastic bags embedded in the forest understory. The trailer trash later disappeared, though the area remained untidy up until the day after the shooting.
The city returned to the scene and the bear-enticing trashscape was finally cleaned up following the incident. The area has remained relatively clean, if not immaculate.
Department of Fish and Wildlife reality check
While neighbors are focused on the furry, lumbering presence they’d come to know, wildlife managers tend to concern themselves with the overall viability of species. Sentimentality, or Disneyesque romanticization of a wild animal, are luxuries that can’t encumber pressing environmental business, and business is brisk in the bioregion.
In dispassionate terms, the loss of the Sunny Brae bear will have no effect on the species’ survival. With 30,000 or more roaming California, black bears are anything but endangered. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Andrew Hughan described the current bear population as “very robust” and growing. With ongoing habitat loss and distortions of the natural balance caused by climate change, human-bear encounters are only going to increase, he said.
At the same time, the agency’s 350 game wardens are spread thin across the vast state of California. With much of their energy spent lately on cannabis grows and other urgent issues, tough enforcement decisions are routine.
Hughan cautioned against armchair analyses of the incident, likening it to the unreal world of easy resolutions depicted on CSI television shows. He said the investigating warden on the scene had made appropriate calls in resolving the incident, and that no depredation permit was issued or other action taken because it was “not necessary.”
Nor would contacting the city have accomplished anything, even to check for chronic negligence. “We have very good relations with Arcata,” Hughan said. “This was frankly not something that rises to the level of notification. There was no public safety issue.”
As to the bare-bones investigation, Hughan said the incident was “fairly routine” and with no people hurt, it didn’t merit further allocation of agency resources. “We’re not going to put the same level of investment into this as we would a human crime,” he said.
Hartman was entirely within his rights, Hughan said, though he hinted that the matter might have been handled better. “It was an unfortunate circumstance that maybe could have been avoided, but it is a legal and legitimate action,” he said. In this case, CDFW saw the bear’s demise as a fait accompli and limited its actions to carcass cleanup.
The scales of justice tilt heavily toward humans, with protection of human life and property paramount. “When there are conflicts between people and wildlife, wildlife is going to lose every time,” Hughan said.
Even if the agency were to build a legal case, it’s unlikely that prosecution would result in any useful justice. Nor would it bring back the dead bear.
“The reality is that we are trying to balance wildlife management with public safety,” Hughan said. “Between trying to manage many species and protect public safety and quality of life, at the end of the day it’s a nearly impossible mission.”
The silo treatment
Three government entities dealt with the bear-dooming situation at some point. With benefit of hindsight, it appears that each kept the information enclosed within its own data silo, none sharing any notice with the others.
Environmental Services didn’t notify CDFW of an ongoing food trash issue at the wildlife-rich forest/urban boundary, nor is there any record of it addressing the problem with the resident.
Arcata Police were called about the shooting by Hartman the night it took place, but didn’t tell Environmental Services that an adult bear was lying dead just off the street in city forestland, its crumpled carcass on public view through the early afternoon of the next day.
CDFW didn’t check in with the city about any prior bear-baiting issues, nor did it apprise the city of details of the shotgun shooting within city limits, or of the bear carcass removal from the Arcata Community Forest.
The bear’s remains now rest at Humboldt State, awaiting processing and a busy afterlife as part of the curriculum in a famed natural resources college. The locally-grown California black bear (U. a. californiensis) will become part of the HSU Vertebrate Museum’s collection, used for mammalogy research and instruction.
“It’s really a great thing to be able to have,” said John Reiss, professor of zoology.
First, a necropsy – the term for an animal autopsy – will yield more details of the bear’s age, health and cause of death. The carcass will be dissected, its organs made available for use in classes on specimen preparation, disease, anatomy and more. The hide will be removed and preserved, and bones scoured with the use of flesh-eating beetles.
Richard Brown, assistant wildlife professor, said the bear’s 250 pound weight is within the normal 150 to 350 pound range for an adult. While full-grown male bears might weigh as much as 600 pounds, Brown said 250 pounds “is not a terribly low weight” for one. The CDFW incident report also designates the bear as an adult.
A mournful coda
The bear’s demise is sadly lamented by some Sunny Braers, who are as dismayed by the minimal official response as CDFW may be about residents’ fixation on a single animal out of the millions for which the agency is responsible.
But the bear’s friends in the sleepy shire appreciated the bear as more than a mere data point. They’d tried to help their neighborhood mascot’s chances of survival by minimizing habituation and the very attractions that ended up killing it. Resident Bruce LeBel, for example, had coordinated later trash pickup times with Arcata Garbage so that bear-tempting refuse bins wouldn’t be left out overnight on pickup day.
“Many Sunny Brae residents orchestrated their trash and other things to reduce the attraction for him and to peacefully coexist,” said Liz Finger.
The account of a bear attack didn’t jibe with her experience. Bears normally shy away from noise and surprises, avoiding calorie-wasting entanglements. Black bear attacks are uncommon, if not unknown.
“The bear was never aggressive to me, my family or my dog,” Finger said. “Of course my dog went a bit crazy when he came around; I thought it was up to me to keep her under control.”
“I mourn that this bear was killed,” Finger said, “especially since it was an avoidable situation.”