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More bears or more sightings? Officials say both

A backyard trail camera in Medford captured a nighttime visitor. Wildlife officials say the prevalence of cameras makes us more aware of bears in the city, but they also think there have been more bears in the Rogue Valley this fall. [Jamie Lusch/Mail Tribune]

While the Chinese calendar may have deemed 2022 the “Year of the Tiger,” Southern Oregonians are quite certain it’s been the year of the bear.

Local wildlife and forestry officials have noted a significant uptick in black bear encounters and sightings in both rural, forested areas and cityscapes, where a slew of run-ins between bears and locals have occurred this summer and fall, including a bear attack in west Medford.

Bear sightings and presence of bears are on the rise, for sure, wildlife officials say.

An increase in the use of doorbell and porch security cameras, such as the popular Ring cameras, have certainly contributed to greater visibility of wandering bears, officials said.

“Ten to 20 years ago, a bear walks in front of your house in the middle of the night, and you might never know,” said Mathew Vargas, assistant district wildlife biologist with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Vargas said the usual time for bears to wander is late summer and fall, with hibernation happening around mid-December. Vargas said phone calls about bear activity typically start in late summer as bears venture into town looking for easy meals.

Thanks to a dramatic increase in outdoor security cameras, reports now include middle-of-the-night bear escapades — from searching through trash cans and running across quiet roadways at 2 a.m. to giving a sniff to Halloween porch pumpkins.

Medford resident Cloris Leffler fought off a bear Sept. 5 after it attacked her in her backyard off North Ross Lane. The bear, likely the same one reported at a nearby school a day earlier, was found less than a mile away the following day on Pinecroft Avenue. Medford police officers said they were forced to shoot the bear when it climbed out of a tree and lunged toward officers.

Numerous bear sightings followed in the ensuing weeks.

One bear was struck and killed by a car near Ashland on Interstate 5 in early October, days after a different bear showed up near Sacred Heart School on Medford’s South Holly Street. A pair of abandoned bear cubs were reported near Tolman Creek Road and Ashland Street, near the Ashland YMCA.

Residents of the Eagle Point Golf Course community posted Ring camera photos last week of a large black bear venturing onto front porches near Robert Trent Jones Boulevard, the same week that East Medford residents reported that a bear crossed the road near Bear Creek Park.

“We’re definitely getting more calls than usual. It’s a couple, at least, every day,” Vargas said.

“It can be anything from people finding scat in their backyards to bears being up their trees, bears getting in their hot tubs — they’ll rip the cover off and tear the cover to shreds and swim around a bit. Outside of town, the calls are more about livestock issues, where there are chickens and goats and sheep,” Vargas added.

“For sure it’s been the most reports since 2010. Depending on how this fall keeps up, it might be the most reports ever.”

Vargas said social media users are fond of blaming everything from fires to civilization “encroaching on bear habitat,” but bears visiting Medford this season weren’t born in the pioneer era, and bears coming into town is a typical occurrence.

“I do think the late snow and freeze we had at the end of April probably killed a lot of vegetation and a lot of berry buds at various elevations,” Vargas said.

“Acorns is a big one. I haven’t seen very many this year. And huckleberries, blackberries and elderberries — those are a main food source for the latter half of July and August, into September. If it’s not up there, they’re going to look elsewhere, which happens to be at lower elevation, next to peoples’ houses.”

More bears, maybe. More visibility, for sure.

“Aside from this year being more bears ... overall, the last five years, the amount of bear reporting has definitely increased because of those Ring cameras,” said Vargas.

Whatever the explanation, wildlife officials are more eager for hibernation this year than are the bears.

“I’m waiting on December for sure,” Vargas noted.

Forest Service officials offer advice on how to react if you encounter a bear, at www.fs.usda.gov/detail/rogue-siskiyou/alerts-notices/?cid=fseprd1041470

Reach reporter Buffy Pollock at 541-776-8784 or bpollock@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @orwritergal