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Bears Return to Southern Oregon’s 500,000 Acre Biscuit Fire

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Bears in the Biscuit

Drive south from the historic Wolf Creek Tavern in southern Oregon, to just north of the giant Red Woods in California and the majority of your trip will be within the boundaries of the Siskiyou National Forest.  You could stop off in Grants Pass and take a jet boat ride westward on the whitewaters of the Rogue River.  Or, from the pacific coast-side of the Siskiyou you could tag along with the postman, delivering mail up-river along the Rogue for sixty miles.  If you’ve seen the movie Rooster Cogburn, you watched John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn weave their way through magnificent canyons and treacherous waters, a top a raft of logs.  They dodged bullets and bad guys, eventually dumping their cargo of dynamite into the river, and of course The Duke saved the day.     

The Siskiyou (pronounced Sis-Kee-You) is an amazingly wild place.  It is the most floristically diverse forest in the country and holds 28 species of coniferous trees.  Only the great Smokey Mountains of the eastern United States can compare with the diversity of plant life in this Mediterranean ecosystem.  Hunting, fishing, hiking, camping and whitewater rafting are enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year. 

The Klamath, Pacific Coast and Siskiyou mountain ranges within the forest are extremely old.  Some rocks found in the Siskiyous have been there for over 200 million years.  The Siskiyou National Forest comprises 1,163,484 acres, or just over 1,800 square miles, (the state of Rhode Island encompasses an area of 1,545 sq. miles).  Thousands of black bears, deer, elk and innumerable other species reside in this enormous landscape.

In July 2002 the Siskiyou was ablaze.  Over a period of weeks nearly one-half-million acres (499,965 acres, equal to 780 square miles) would be charred and blackened.  In the recorded history of Oregon, no fire had been so large.  To put the immensity of this occurrence into perspective, with over eight million residents, the five boroughs of New York City rest on 301 square miles.  The boundaries of the District of Columbia take in only 68 square miles, and the city of Portland Oregon fills a mere 90,000 acres.

On July 13, 2002, a large number of lightening strikes sparked fires throughout southwest Oregon and northwest California.  Two of these fires began on “Biscuit Hill”, located within the 180,000 acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness, which in turn is located within the Siskiyou National Forest.  A number of smaller fires eventually joined the Biscuit #1 and Biscuit #2 fires, spreading a wall of flame and smoke across an incredibly large area.  Over 7,000 firefighters and smoke jumpers battled the blaze until November 9th

Fire is vital to the overall long-term health of a forest.  Forest fires clear the ground of brush and debris, and return valuable nutrients to the soil.  In a relatively short period of time, grasses and brushy plant life will sprout and thrive.  But initially within the Biscuit fire boundaries, hundreds of square miles of forest floor had the appearance of a blackened moonscape. 

An Oregon State Police game trooper informed a friend of mine that he sees bears nearly everyday within the boundaries of the fire.  In order to learn more about bears returning to the Biscuit, I met with Fred Craig, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service.  Fred is assigned to the Siskiyou National Forest and has worked hard to assist wildlife disturbed by the fire.  Fred lives in the Grants Pass area and is an avid hunter.  He is the President of the Oregon Hunters Association for Josephine County.

Fred told me that at the outset the Biscuit fire displaced countless animals, including bears.  Bear numbers are high throughout the Siskiyous and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.  As the fire progressed across hundreds of square miles, fleeing bears entered the territories of other bear populations.  Suddenly black bear numbers were extremely dense all along the fire’s border.

Mr. Craig said firefighters were inundated with visits by hungry bears.  Firemen told stories of finding bears in the cabs of fire trucks and climbing about on other apparatus.  Firefighters lived in the field, consuming meals on the run, outdoors and inside their vehicles.  They found it difficult to resist the urge to toss a marauding bear chips, cookies and sandwiches.  Also, boxed meals were often brought to specific pickup locations and were consumed in that area.  This meant food was stored and refuse discarded at isolated positions.  Like computer assisted fighter pilots, bears zeroed in on these savory aromas.  Eventually supervisors had to impose strict rules against the sharing of food.  Fred told me that due to stress from the fire and forced relocation, bears seemed to lose all fear of humans.  Line supervisors worried someone might be injured. 

I found Fred Craig to be extremely helpful.  He spoke of wildlife recovery with a passion and genuine concern.  He patiently spent over one hour showing me maps of the fire area and explaining some of their programs in place to assist the bears, deer, elk and other returning animals.

The Forest Service planted grasses and oats along roadways.  This not only helped fight erosion in severely damaged areas, but provided an immediate food source.  They also utilized helicopters to spread these same seeds over broad areas on mountainsides.  Mr. Craig advised me the seeding had been so successful, there was plentiful springtime food in 2003 and 2004.  He said that with an abundance of protein rich food, many black-tailed deer gave birth to three fawns.  But, bears consume the grasses and oats as well, bringing large numbers of them into the fawning sites.  Bears have taken an exceedingly large number of newborn deer and elk throughout the planting area.  Of course, cougars feed on fawns and elk calves as well.

Fred suggested I contact DeWaine Jackson, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODF&W), as Jackson is a research scientist involved in a “bear marking” program.  Mr. Jackson’s office is located at ODF&W’s Southwest Regional Office in Roseburg.

Like Mr. Craig had been, I found DeWaine Jackson was professional and dedicated to wildlife projects with which he is involved.  DeWaine explained one method in which ODF&W attempts to determine bear population numbers.  In 1999, ODF&W began a bear-marking program in Oregon’s southwest regions.  This includes the area affected by the Biscuit fire and the boundaries of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. 

Mr. Jackson is the Research Project Leader for the development of a black bear population census.  Over the past five years ODF&W staff have established hundreds of feeding stations across an enormous tract of land.  Tetracycline is mixed with the feed and permanently stains the teeth of a bear when consumed.  When a hunter takes a bear and forwards a premolar tooth to ODF&W, the tooth is examined to determine if the tetracycline is present.  At the conclusion of each hunting season ODF&W completes telephone surveys of persons who purchased bear tags, inquiring about their success.  Results of the telephone survey and tooth examinations are correlated as a method of determining bear populations.  DeWaine Jackson shared the results of their preliminary progress report, data collected since 1999 when the research began. 

The Klamath Mountain Range, inside the Biscuit fire area proved to be one of the most heavily populated sections.  The Coast Range Mountains east of Coos Bay, north of the “burn”, was another area with dense bear numbers.  Preliminary estimates from the ODF&W progress report for southwest Oregon show a progressive and dramatic increase in bear population.  In 1999, bear numbers in this tiny corner of Oregon were estimated at 4,796.  In 2002 the estimate dramatically increased to 7,838 individual bears.  Although the data is not yet calculated, there is no reason to believe the 2004 census won’t show a continued increase.  What great news for black bear hunters.  (Note:  Oregon’s statewide bear population is estimated at over thirty-five thousand bears.)

Clayton Barber is also a bear researcher for ODF&W, working out of their Gold Beach office on the southern Oregon coast. If you’re a black bear enthusiast, Mr. Barber has your dream job.  Clayton Barber directs a project in which bears are captured and fitted with radio tracking collars.  Then, while bears are snoozing in their winter dens, he uses the collar to locate females and inspects their cubs for research data.  Clayton also assists in the tetracycline project by attending to feeding stations within his area. 

Clayton feels bear numbers are very high within his region, which is on the western boundaries of the Biscuit fire.  Mr. Barber told me he believes bears were never truly displaced from most areas affected by the fire.  He explained that the fire burnt in a mosaic pattern, meaning some mountainsides and watersheds were left untouched.  Clayton believes bears returned to burned-out sections almost immediately.

My longtime friend Brian Riley acquired a SW Oregon spring bear tag and traveled to the western regions of the Biscuit fire, east of Gold Beach.  While showing me maps of areas where he thought bear numbers would be the highest, Fred Craig pointed to roads named Burnt Ridge, Chrome Ridge, Flat Top, and other roadways within the burn.  Brian Riley chose to hunt southeast of the Rogue River, searching the mountains and canyons off Burnt Ridge Road. 

The fire cleared the timber of underbrush, which drastically improved visibility.

Due to dense vegetation, those of us living and hunting in western Oregon are not accustomed to being able to see into the timber.  Brian told me camping and hunting within the burn was a real pleasure.  He noted the incredible growth of new grasses, providing exceptional forage for black bears and other critters. 

In four days of glassing Brian observed seven bears.  On the fourth and last day of his hunt he took a beautiful cinnamon colored bear.  Using a Ruger Model 77, 25-06, with a Sightron 4-12 scope, and Barnes Triple Shock 115 grain bullets, Brian took the bear from 150 yards. 

The blitzkrieg of a forest fire is always a double-edged sword.  The costly devastation to trees and private property is a nightmare for those earning a living from or living in the forest.  Conversely, fire is a natural occurrence of nature and revitalizes the long-term growth of woodland plants. 

It appears bear habitat may actually be improved in the aftermath of this fire.  Bottom line, if you want to find me next spring, I’ll be down south searching for Bears in the Biscuit.

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March 11, 2008 - Posted by | Bears, Cats and Claws, Hunting Stuff

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