Those who own property in rural areas of the United States are often forced to deal with animal intrusion. Whether it’s a pack of raccoons rummaging through the trash, deer or elk damaging crops orlarge predators (like bears or mountain lions) prowling the premises, invasive critters can be a constant headache. We recently spoke with two long-time employees of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, Deer and Elk Conflict Specialist Anthony Novack and Officer Bruce Richards. They offered some tips for landowners who are besieged by local wildlife.
Wenger Blog: What are some of the most common problems associated with intrusive wildlife?
Anthony Novack: Elk are the most problematic because they’re bigger and cause more damage. We’re primarily concerned with property damage, such as alfalfa, hay, timothy hay, as well as vineyards and orchards. There have also been problems with bundled hay in barns, and secondary problems include damage to fences and irrigation pipes. We’re also starting to get into wolf management, which has been an issue in Northeast Washington. When it comes to raccoons, the statutes have changed to let landowners deal with those problems themselves. If there is a nuisance problem, [the Department of Fish & Wildlife] will direct them to a private trapper.
Bruce Richards: With bears, it always has to do with food – it’s got nothing to do with bears wanting to hurt or kill people. Bears will keep coming back as long as there’s food for them. Once you take the food away – guess what? No bears. But what you’re doing might be different from your next-door neighbor or people who live down the street. Everybody has a different deal going on, and wildlife isn’t a top priority for most people until there’s an animal in their garage.
WB: Are there certain times of the year when homeowners are more likely to be visited by animals?
AN: For deer and elk, August and September are usually big activity periods because a lot of elk are on public land. The forest dries up by August, and that drives them onto irrigated croplands. Problems usually get worse later in the winter because animals are stressed for food and looking for something to eat. Localized problems also occur in late spring when herds start migrating out. Most wildlife lives in proximity to private lands, so most of the problems occur on the boundary where agriculture meets public forestland.
WB: Realistically, should homeowners worry about being attacked by aggressive wild animals?
BR: As far as we’re aware of, one person has been killed by a bear in the state of Washington in the last 150 years, and one person has been killed by a mountain lion in the state in the last 150 years. You have a better chance of walking outside and having a tree limb fall on you, or even getting struck by lightning. I’ve personally dealt with two mountain lion attacks – neither resulted in a fatality, and one involved a mountain lion cub that weighed maybe 40 pounds. I’m not saying people haven’t been killed by mountain lions or bears, but these cases are usually due to aberrant behavior.
WB: Do people need to be concerned about having pets if there are bears in the area?
BR: With bears, probably not – unless the dog goes after the bear. If someone gets attacked by a bear, usually it’s because the dog went after the bear first and then ran off, so the bear went after the owner instead. I’m not saying that a bear won’t take a dog or cat – elk have been taken down by bears, so they’re capable of doing nasty stuff. On the other hand, if a mountain lion sees a dog or cat wandering around on a back porch, usually the pet doesn’t have a chance. But I’ve also seen a cougar get chased up a tree by a backyard dog. It all depends on whether or not the cougar has the advantage.
WB: What can property owners do to mitigate the threat of animal intrusion?
AN: Most of it is attraction, so you eliminate the attraction. Wherever the food is that they’re coming into get, you either eliminate it or create a barrier that prevents them from getting into it. Having a dog in the yard usually keeps out deer, elk and other animals.
BR: Bears are so smart that, after awhile, they can figure out when people are putting their garbage out to be collected. To keep bears from getting into trash, people should pick up garbage on their property and use animal-proof garbage containers with metal lids. Bears are a lot easier to work with – if you want to work with them. But deer and elk are more difficult to deal with because they don’t have the same brains as beers. If you want permanence from having problems with deer and elk, you should put up a cedar fence that the animals can’t see over. If they can’t see over it, they probably won’t jump over it. Electrical fences can also be effective.
WB: Are there certain types of garbage that attract bears?
BR: They eat regular food. Their noses are five to ten times stronger than a bloodhound; they can smell birdseed from a mile away. So you can imagine what garbage does. They especially love sweets, like chocolate and licorice.
WB: Do homeowners face any penalties for shooting or otherwise harming invasive animals?
AN: You’re not allowed to kill a deer or elk without a written agreement with the State of Washington and Department of Fish & Wildlife. The penalties are considered out-of-season poaching violations.
BR: There’s a law now that says you cannot feed bears (intentionally or unintentionally). We can cite homeowners if their yards aren’t cleaned up. You have a right to protect your property, so if a bear comes at you or takes livestock, you have the right to protect yourself. But if an animal is walking in your backyard or along your fence line, you don’t have the right to shoot it – and we will pursue that.
WB: What should a homeowner do if they encounter a wild animal on their property?
AN: If they’re not concerned, then they shouldn’t call anybody. What we deal with primarily is damage to commercial crops. If there’s a deer in the garden or something like that, we provide advice and direct them to our website, which features resources to help them deal with the problem.
BR: We’ll almost always respond with a telephone call if someone reports a mountain lion, and usually with bears too. But just because someone sees an animal in their yard doesn’t mean that they need to be concerned. We get these calls all the time. We usually tell them to be aware, make sure their garbage is put away, and sprinkle some Clorox around the areas where they keep garbage to mask the smell.
We’d like to extend a big thank-you to Anthony Novack and Bruce Richards for their valuable input. Factors that contribute to wildlife intrusion will often vary on from county to county; if you have concerns about animals on your property, contact the local Department of Fish & Wildlife office for information specific to your community.
By Brad Nehring