“It’s got us scratching our heads. We thought we would have had bears, especially with the bait stations and food stuffs around that culvert trap.”
Game and Fish spokesman
The U.S. Forest Service has reopened most of the areas closed this spring after a rare string of bear attacks. Months of effort to trap or track more bears in the area yielded a puzzling dearth of bruins.
“We have not trapped a single bear,” said Arizona Game and Fish Spokesman Jim Paxon. “We had a culvert trap, several sets of snares with two baiting stations and seven-day-a-week coverage by game wardens, but we haven’t had a single trap disturbed. It’s really kind of a strange situation,” said Paxon.
The lack of fresh bear sightings and July’s monsoon rains’ effect on the bears’ food supply prompted the Forest Service to reopen several campground, although the Ponderosa Campground at the epicenter of the string of attacks will likely remain closed for the season.
The string of three attacks started on May 31 when a bear ripped open a tent in the Ponderosa Campground and clawed a woman on the head. On June 21, a bear entered an unfinished house in Thompson Draw about a mile from the campground and nipped a sleeping construction worker on the leg. The most serious attack came on June 24 when a bear tore open a tent and started to drag a Tempe man off into the woods. Other campers scared off the bear and one camper may have shot it several times. The man survived thanks to the quick intervention of another camper who was a paramedic.
The Game and Fish Department called in trackers after the third incident and killed three bears, two of them after they approached the Ponderosa Campground and one of them after he started to rummage through trash cans in Tonto Village.
DNA testing showed that the largest of the three bears — a 300-pound female —definitely did not commit any of the attacks. The results remain inconclusive for the other two bears.
Paxon said they still don’t know whether a single bear committed all three attacks, given the lack of good DNA samples from hair left behind in the first two attacks.
The Forest Service reopened the Sharp Creek campground without restrictions. Rangers also reopened Christopher Creek and Upper Tonto, but only for people staying in hard-sided campers.
Lower Tonto is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with no overnight camping.
Normally dispersed camping areas like Bear Flat, Lower Tonto Creek, Upper Tonto Creek and Horton Trail have reopened for day use, with no overnight camping.
The Forest Service has also ordered more bear-proof trash containers and shifted to the practice of emptying trash containers every day. Before the first attack, a bear had been drawn to the camping area several times by overflowing trash containers, said campers.
Paxon said that the bone-dry fall this year dramatically reduced the food available to bears as they emerged from hibernation. The July rain provided a flush of new food resources for the omnivorous bears, which depend heavily on things like acorns, berries, grubs and other sources of food.
“It’s been pretty active this year throughout the state,” in terms of human encounters with bears, mountain lions and other wildlife. “The extremely dry spring was pretty tough on wildlife. I just think that since July they’ve been able to find food without going into the community. Bears are typically very timid creatures. They don’t like coming in contact with humans, so we’re very glad we haven’t had any more bear and human interactions,” Paxon said.
Nonetheless, Paxon said game wardens remain puzzled at the abrupt bear disappearing act once they set out traps and started patrols.
“It’s got us scratching our heads,” he said. “We thought we would have had bears, especially with the bait stations and food stuffs around that culvert trap. We thought we’d at least have some visits. There’s a bunch of bear in that country,” he added, since studies show that the thick chaparral rich with scrub oak between Four Peaks and the Rim has some of the highest black bear densities in the state.
Unfortunately, after a promising July, August rains have once again proved fickle. So far this year, Payson has gotten only about 40 percent of its normal rainfall — with less than half an inch in April compared to a long-term average for the month of 3 inches.
That could cause more problems in the future, if the bears can’t find enough food to put on the weight they need to go into hibernation.
“We’re hoping we get back into a normal monsoon pattern next week,” said Paxon.
In the meantime, Game and Fish has reinforced its normal guidelines for encounters with bears.
The guidelines include:
• Stay as far away from bears as possible.
• Face the animal — don’t turn your back.
• Don’t stare at the animal, which they may read as a threat.
• Never touch or approach young animals.
• Always give the animal an escape route, so he doesn’t feel trapped.
• Never feed wildlife.
• Don’t try to get the animal to move by shouting or throwing rocks or other objects.
• Don’t store food in sleeping areas or tents.
• Do store food in secure containers, either in a car or suspended in a tree.
• Dispose of all trash that smells like food properly, well away from sleeping areas.