The carelessness of campers forced local Arizona Game and Fish Wildlife Manager Craig McMullen to perform probably the most undesirable task of his profession.
McMullen and fellow Game and Fish officers had to slay a yearling black bear Memorial Day because it lost its natural fear of humans.
"The young bear was going from trash pile to trash pile and showed absolutely no fear of humans. It had become a threat to public safety," McMullen said. The officer estimated the bear was as close as 15 feet to some of the spectators who had gathered near Tonto Creek to ogle the animal.
McMullen harbors little doubt the situation was created by neglectful Rim country visitors.
"The amount of trash left by campers resulted in this bear becoming habituated to human-provided food and to being around humans," McMullen said.
It was the first time in his tenure as a game officer that McMullen -- who recently transferred to Payson from Lakeside -- was forced to slay a bear for such reasons.
"We have to balance the interests of humans and animal. It was the best thing to do ... the bear was hooked on humans' trash," he said.
Capturing the bear and transporting it out of the area was not a possibility.
"Relocating is not an option, because we would be just transferring a public safety problem. Even young bears are powerful animals capable of causing severe harm to people," McMullen said.
Also, the officer added, the possibility existed that the bear could migrate back to the Tonto Creek area and continue his antics.
According to game and fish reports, one camper called 911 and reported the young bear had gotten on the picnic table his family was using and ate the family's picnic lunch. Another camper in the area armed himself with a rifle because the bear was going from one camp to another along Tonto Creek.
The fear of humans, Game Officer Rory Aikens said, "is a healthy thing for the wild animals, and for people.
"Once that fear is lost, wild animals and people can and often do come into conflict."
In such conflicts, wild animals are usually the losers because they must be destroyed, which was the case with the Tonto Creek bear.
Department biologists say during the spring time, female bears typically kick loose their yearlings so the young bears can make it on their own . These bears often get bounced from one adult bear territory to another and can end up trying to make a living in places like campgrounds, or even areas with more permanent human habitation.
Only last summer, local wildlife manager Carl Lutch worked with a local refuse company installing bear-proof trash bins in the area to try to avert just such problems as happened in Tonto Creek.
But over the Memorial Day weekend, campers were bagging up their trash and leaving it at campsites or along the roads.
Department officers observed the trash situation in both campgrounds and at dispersed campsites in the forest.
"At the entrance to one campground, there was about three or four cubic feet of plastic trash bags stacked up. Plastic bags are not bear-proof," McMullen said.
The bottom line, he continued, is that the root cause of the problem was not the bear, but rather people not being conscientious about how they handled their trash and foodstuffs.
To avoid any more such occurrences this summer, game officials are urging campers to bag their trash and place it in bear-proof trash containers provided at campgrounds. Trash left on the ground by campers or others visiting the forest can also be wildlife attractants.