The thief was caught Tuesday night, young and bare clawed, after a years-long crime spree breaking into dozens of cars, ransacking a handful of tents and reportedly sleeping in one cabin bed.
He was a product of his education. A 4-year-old black bear rewarded for his first camp raid by a tasty meal. He likely never looked back.
Shortly after his capture, Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologists killed the creature, because that kind of behavior, they said, over months or years, is permanent and ultimately a danger to people.
The Snowy Range in southeast Wyoming has become a hot spot for misbehaving black bears this summer, as have the Story and Cody regions, said Dusty Lasseter, Game and Fish’s Bear Wise Coordinator. Caught early enough, the bears can be relocated and hopefully continue their lives feasting on berries, rodents and grasses and remain out of trouble, but if their behavior goes unreported, they often end up dead.
As summer turns to fall and bears begin packing on pounds for winter, wildlife biologists are pleading with recreationists across the state to consider all mountain areas bear country, keep a clean camp and report any incidents immediately.
“Normal bear behavior is to avoid people and run off,” Lasseter said. “But if a bear has been habituated or food conditioned, they start to lose their natural fear and respect of people.”
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The Goldilocks Bear, as biologists began calling it, likely started its life of crime last summer in the Pickaroon Campground near the Platte River Wilderness on the southern edge of the Snowy Range. Game and Fish received reports of a small black bear ransacking tents, but only weeks after the fact.
The behavior started again this year in July as the bear figured out how to open car doors and look for food, said Lee Knox, a Game and Fish wildlife biologist in the Laramie region who spent his summer trying to capture this and other problem bears.
People often don’t report bear conflict because they worry wildlife officials will euthanize the bear, Lasseter said. But if Game and Fish is notified after the first incident, and campers put all food, garbage and other attractants away, often even if the bear comes back, it will realize there’s nothing to eat and move on. If it doesn’t move on, biologists can usually relocate it somewhere else.
Unfortunately, once a bear has received what biologists call food rewards a couple of times, it won’t likely forget that people mean food. At that point, even if the bear is dropped deep in the woods away from campgrounds and cabins, it will likely find its way back to human activity and begin again.
The bear by Pickaroon wasn’t the only one causing trouble in the Snowy Range this summer. Biologists caught a cinnamon-colored black bear in early July near Centennial after it spent weeks opening cars and looking for treats.
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It destroyed the interior of one truck, even setting off the airbags. Some vehicles, though, remained largely unscathed.
“Most people only call if there’s damage, but then the neighbor will call and say, ‘We had a car door open and a dirty paw print on the seat.’”
Knox isn’t sure how bears learn to open car doors. They probably scratch the outside vehicles until their paws catch on a door handle and it opens.
The Snowys aren’t the only area plagued with bad black bears this summer, Lasseter said. He’s had reports from the Big Horn Mountains and the Cody area.
Ironically, this summer has had fewer grizzly bear encounters than usual. Lasseter said the lower number of grizzly problems is likely due to wetter weather creating more food in the high country and less of a need for bears to roam down closer to people. Why the black bears have been worse, neither Knox nor Lasseter can say for sure.
But they both are asking anyone camping, hunting, recreating or living in any of Wyoming’s wild areas to consider all of it bear country. Most people just think about the northwest corner as a place to secure food and carry bear spray, but black bears are scattered across the state through most mountain ranges from Casper Mountain to the Bighorns to the Wyoming Range.
And while most people have a healthy fear of grizzly bears, a black bear conditioned to humans can be just as bad.
“As a wildlife manager, that’s one of the most dangerous situations,” Lasseter said. “You’re increasing your odds for an encounter and conflict. When the bear is more bold and doesn’t show signs of stress and sees people as a food source, they will come into your camp and try and take away food or even injure people.”
That means even if you’re camped in an area you’ve never seen bears, clean all of your food and other smelly attractants like sunscreen and even lip balm. Also put away dog food, bird feeders or anything else a bear or some other wildlife might want to eat. Secure them in a vehicle or other bear-proof container, and before you leave camp for the day or go to sleep at night, lock your doors.
It’s unlikely a two-legged thief will break into your vehicle to steal your stereo high in the mountains, but a four-legged one might welcome itself inside, and the results could be even worse.