VERNAL State wildlife officers say they had to destroy a black bear in Whiterocks Canyon earlier this month because a property owner there had repeatedly fed the animal, making it a potential threat to humans.
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Lt. Torrey Christophersen said his office in Vernal began receiving anonymous complaints last summer about a man putting bait on his Whiterocks Canyon property to attract a bear so that he could give his grandchildren "a kind of gee-whiz tour."
"Neighbors had heard about this individual putting dog food and syrup and doughnuts out to purposely bring this bear in so that he could show his kids and grandkids," the lieutenant said. "This was the first year we were really able to pinpoint the location of where it was going on and get this individual to say he was putting bait out, although he didn't really admit to it."
Conservation officers made contact with the man on several occasions, trying to address their concerns about his behavior. They even served him with a "cease and desist" letter drafted with the help of Uintah County prosecutors. But Christophersen said the man, whom he described as belligerent, maintained that he had a right to do whatever he wanted to on his property.
"In some sense, it's like he thought he had a pet bear up there," the lieutenant said, adding that the DWR does have authority to cross onto private property if there is wildlife interest, specifically if it concerns public safety.
Officers eventually received permission from neighboring property owners to put traps on their land. But Christophersen said the bear was being fed so well that it proved difficult to lure it into a trap.
"When you're being offered a steak dinner in one spot and an old greasy hamburger in the other, what are you going to choose?" he said.
Clint Sampson, the conservation officer who was tasked with destroying the bear on Aug. 2 once it was trapped, said he was angered at having to shoot the animal.
"Most bears, when they get in the trap, they are growling and grunting and hitting the cage," he said. "She was just docile."
But both Sampson and Christophersen said regardless of how calm the 2-year-old female bear seemed in the trap, she posed a very real danger to humans.
"The problem is, that bear gets along with (the property owner). She knows she'll get fed," Sampson said. "But when she goes on the neighbor's property and their kids don't know the rules of the game, and they don't want to give the bear food, the bear's going to get its food."
After the bear was killed, Christophersen said, his office received several calls from people in the canyon who were upset about the incident. He said one non-hunter even called to say that he felt deprived of the chance to enjoy the animal in its natural habitat because of his neighbor's actions and the DWR's response.
"We're protecting the wildlife for everybody's benefit and enjoyment," Christophersen said. "You obviously have people up there living, and when you have a bear that becomes unafraid of humans, that's not a good thing,"
The DWR has declined to identify the man who it says was feeding the bear.
"What we really want to reinforce is, 'What were you thinking? This is not a good practice because it puts people's lives in jeopardy,"' Christophersen said.
Wildlife officials are reviewing the case with the Uintah County Attorney's Office to determine whether the property owner could face criminal charges.
Christophersen said in the wake of the June 2006 bear attack in American Fork Canyon that claimed the life of 11-year-old Samuel Ives, the DWR has been dealing regularly with "bear incidents and problems," some caused by people intentionally feeding bears.
He said visitors to the outdoors should watch for illegal bait sites, which typically consist of mounds of dog food, garbage pails full of bacon grease, pastries, or excessive piles of animal carcasses, and that lack the signs required by state- or federally issued bear hunting permits.
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