By Natalie St. John

nstjohn@chinookobserver.com

ILWACO -- Just after sunrise last Thursday morning, a young black bear emerged from the woods in front of Doris Berryhill-Parks' home. After giving her garbage can a curious sniff, it retreated into her backyard and ambled onto her deck. A few minutes later, the characteristic sound of a toppling plastic garbage echoed down Klahanee Drive. A neighbor later remarked that he'd found garbage scattered across the road.

In the forested hilltop neighborhood of Sahalee, the bears are abundant and often seem to show little fear of humans. Encounters like this are a daily occurrence. State wildlife managers allege that resident Doris Parks has created a potentially dangerous imbalance in the local ecosystem by intentionally feeding bears. Her activities, they say, have led to an unnaturally large bear population that is overly comfortable with humans.

Earlier this month, enforcement officers with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) concluded a bear-trapping campaign in her neighborhood, and submitted a report summarizing an extended investigation to the Pacific County Prosecutor's office.

If the county pursues charges against Parks, she could be the first person in the state to face prosecution under a law passed in 2012 that makes it illegal to deliberately feed large wild animals. (A related 2012 law makes it a less serious crime to negligently feed large wildlife, for example by leaving garbage cans unsecured.)

Prosecutor David Burke and his staff declined to comment on the possibly of a forthcoming prosecution.

Happiness from animals

For a long time, Parks, 70, was "a traveler and a wife," who felt at home anywhere in the world. But in Sahalee, where deer, birds, coyotes and bears wandered through her yard, she felt a deep sense of peace. Fifteen years ago, she decided to settle there permanently.

She hung out a bird feeder, and began to feed a group of feral cats, eventually accumulating 12 house cats. "Animals," she has said, "are my happiness."

Then 10 years ago, bulldozers began clearing land for the adjacent subdivision, Discovery Heights. According to her, many trees were cut down merely to improve the view of Baker Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Suddenly, the bears she had once seen only in fleeting glimpses began showing up in her yard regularly, and she began to fear for their well-being.

"I thought, 'Oh my God. They don't have a place to go anymore,'" Parks recalled.

Around this time, she began to purchase land in her neighborhood, including a nine-acre parcel across the street from her home on Hiaqua Place, and three nearby residential lots. In all, she has spent at least $300,000 on land purchases and property taxes to establish this private wildlife refuge.

"I got this so wildlife might have a place to be," Parks explained in her lilting Swiss accent. "If you choose to live with nature, you should appreciate nature -- you should not destroy it."

Too many bears for the area

The WDFW report suggests that at the very least, Parks created conditions that allowed the bear population to grow beyond the area's carrying capacity during a period when the WDFW had limited recourse -- until 2012, Washington had no law against feeding bears.

When other residents of the neighborhood began to complain to the WDFW in 2008, Officer Bret Hopkins visited Parks for the first time in what would become a six-year-long investigation that helped inspire the Legislature's 2012 ban on feeding.

"She told me that she fed the bears, and she also knew that it was not illegal to do so," Hopkins wrote in the first report.

When neighbors complained again in 2009, Parks told Hopkins "... that she knew it was not illegal to feed the wildlife and she will continue to do it. She told me that she didn't believe the animals would ever hurt anybody," Hopkins wrote.

Twice in spring 2011, Hopkins said he saw her while shopping at Costco, and recorded video of her loading 400 to 600 pounds of pet food onto a flatbed cart. Until a couple of years ago, Parks did have as many as three dogs in her home in addition to her cats, but it seems unlikely they would have consumed 800 or more pounds of food in a matter of weeks.

Neighbors were unwilling to provide written statements, some saying they feared retaliation. But in May 2012, a Sahalee resident emailed Hopkins: "The bears are more of a problem recently. They are not fazed by people, which is scary because I have children."

In 2010, the City of Ilwaco created an ordinance against feeding wild animals. But WDFW officers are not commissioned to enforce Ilwaco's ordinances, and Long Beach Police have never caught Parks feeding.

The same year, Stackpole Road resident Monte Miller told the Chinook Observer he routinely fed as many as 15 bears. WDFW agents began trapping and killing those bears, but they couldn't press charges in either case -- they felt existing charges, such as reckless endangerment, wouldn't hold up in court.

"It was a difficult situation for us because of the lack of a law addressing the intentional feeding of bears," Hopkins wrote.

WDFW staff began working on a law that would ban feeding.

After one failed attempt, the Legislature in 2012 passed RCW 77.15.792, which outlaws intentional feeding, and 77.15.790, which outlaws negligent feeding.

"The Long Beach Peninsula is not the only place in this great state of ours where this kind of thing is happening," WDFW Deputy Chief of Enforcement Mike Cenci said, "But Stackpole and Ilwaco are shining examples of why we need this tool."

Denies feeding in recent years

Parks will not discuss the allegations of feeding. Aside from allowing blackberry bushes to grow, she insists that she has done nothing in recent years to encourage the bears.

"I'm not going to comment on that, but I definitely have not [fed bears] in the last couple of years," Parks said.

The WDFW report alleges that the feeding continued, even after the law was passed.

Last fall, Cenci, Hopkins and Officer Paul Jacobsen visited Parks' home and found trampled grass, worn paths leading into her yard, and muddy paw prints.

A large pan of pet food still sat on her porch, just as it had in 2009, when they saw two raccoons eating from it. Parks has said the food is for feral cats.

Hopkins posited that "the only reason that there would be this high level of bear activity concentrated around Parks' residence is that there is a source of food present there. ... The abundance of bear traffic around Parks' house is the best evidence we have of her feeding the bears."

When they interview her, Parks said that the animals are harmless and misunderstood. Instead of fearing the bears, Parks told them, neighborhood children "should come to her house so that she can show them how wonderful the bears are."

Another neighbor told officers that she feared both Parks and the bears, and had spent thousands paying to repair damage and to hire someone to take her garbage out. She could no longer eat outdoors or work in her garden, and workers refused to work in her yard, she said.

Last September, WDFW officers trapped a young bear, and euthanized it. Meat from it and other euthanized bears is donated to the His Supper Table meal program.

In October, Hopkins began conducting surveillance, trying to catch Parks in the act of feeding the bears.

"I heard a door slam on the south side of Parks' house. Within one minute, I observed four bears walking across Hiaqua towards where I heard the door slam," Hopkins wrote. "... I believe that the door slam is an audible cue for the bears to come up and eat."

In late fall, officers and biologists decided to put the effort on hold until spring, when bears are more active, and local interest in their efforts had faded.

When they resumed their effort, Cenci acknowledged that they had to work discreetly, because someone had interfered with their previous trapping efforts.

"We did have one trap spring. We may have had one released -- we can't say for sure," Cenci said. In all, they have trapped seven bears in Sahalee since last fall. Five adults were euthanized, and the meat was donated. Two yearlings were relocated to an undisclosed location outside of Pacific County. Past experience has shown WDFW that older bears who have become habituated to human-provided food cannot readjust to life in the wild.

Plenty of bears left

Even now, bears are abundant in Sahalee.

Last week, WDFW biologist Brock Hoenes said that by his estimates, there are probably about 1.2 bears per square kilometer (more than three bears per square mile) -- about 67 percent higher than the typical bear density for Western Washington.

As the bridge between the Peninsula and the mainland, Ilwaco will always have a constantly shifting, higher-than-average population of bears. But those numbers are roughly on par with the highest bear densities ever recorded in Washington.

"If you just look at the habitat, there's no logical explanation for why that small area would support that many bears unless they had access to an artificial food source," Hoenes said. According to him, the goal of trapping was not to lower the bear population overall, but remove any bears that showed obvious signs of being habituated to humans.

Last Friday a Chinook Observer reporter tried to determine whether the remaining bears were habituated to the sound of slamming screen doors, with mixed results.

Around 6:30 a.m., the reporter used a portable speaker to project a recording of a slamming door down Hiaqua Place. Within about a minute, two bears emerged from the woods immediately in front of Parks' house. Seeing the reporter, the bears, who were at a distance of roughly 30 yards, sauntered toward her car for several paces before lumbering up onto Parks' deck, where they could not be seen from the road. On two of three subsequent attempts, the bears quickly reappeared and went to the deck. But on three more subsequent attempts, they did not appear.

On Monday morning, a young bear left Parks' yard shortly after two Chinook Observer staff members arrived. A pair of raccoons wandered in and out of her yard and a crow hopped out of the underbrush next to her home with a beak full of large dog kibbles. Bushes on a well-worn bear trail leading up to her property were soaked with bear urine.

"It's their world too -- I wouldn't chase them off for anything," Parks said last week.

Parks said she has always felt "good" and "safe" co-existing with the bears. She's had to make minor adjustments, such as bringing in her bird feeder at night, but has never been harmed or felt threatened by them.

On the contrary, she said, she feels the real threat is the WDFW officers. The investigation and trapping have left her feeling sad, disillusioned and angry.

"No good" she said, "has ever come from killing a bear."

"I feel I am being harassed by Fish and Wildlife," Parks said. "Cenci -- he was first friendly. When he realized I wasn't going to go with his opinions, he got tough."

WDFW doesn't like trapping

"We have more than enough cause to say she's instrumental in habituating bears through intentionally feeding them," Cenci said on Monday. "We've used a number of tactics to establish her role in feeding these bears."

Cenci said that he too is unhappy about having to trap.

Like Parks, the WDFW officers and biologists each see themselves as animal lovers, and advocates for the natural world. But they are also law enforcement officers, charged with protecting humans. In this case, Cenci said, those two important duties have been very much at odds. In the end, Cenci said, the situation had become so extreme that his agency was "forced" to act.

"I'm not gonna feel bad about fulfilling my public safety role. I would feel really bad if someone's child -- or any human being -- got hurt. Imagine the liability if we failed to act."

If anything, Cenci said, the agency didn't take enough bears.

"I'm not satisfied. ... When we still have bears acting like Pavlov's dogs -- any bear acting that way is one too many bears on that hill."

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