Two reasons were finally found for this change of diet. First of all, the bears were hungry, not just for sweets but for food. Second, in the past they had never had many young trees they could tap. In the primeval, rainy forest of the Pacific Northwest no light struck down to the undergrowth. Young trees were few and far between, occasional replacements for the forest giants. The bark of the old trees was too thick to be stripped and the seedlings were too small.
When the lumber companies' large-scale reforesting projects began, that situation changed. Large blocks of the forest were cut down and tiny seedlings planted in place of the gigantic old trees. The area came alive with blackberries, salal and grasses, which made it an ideal feeding ground for bears.
Bears came from all over and started congregating in the tree farm regions. They lived well on the berries and grasses. The bear population got bigger and bigger. In the middle '20s Ernest Thompson Seton had estimated that there were 15,000 wild bears in the Oregon and Washington national forests, or, roughly, one black bear to three square miles. In the tree farms, concentrations rose to four bears to one square mile, a population Burton Lauckhart, chief of the game department in Washington, calls "heavy" and which spells damage, always.
A PREFERENCE FOR DEER
There was little to disturb or hinder this rapid population growth. Few bears were hunted; the bears were too smart and hunters preferred to go after deer and elk, whose hunting season was roughly the same as that of the bears.
So many bears finally accumulated on the tree farms that they reached a point where they could not survive on the available supply of their traditional diet of berries. The young trees, so laboriously planted by the lumber companies some 20 or 30 years before, were at hand. They tasted good and kept the bears from starving. It was as simple as that.
"This damage to trees is not a fad or the passing fancy of a few individual bears," said Lauckhart. "It apparently is a matter of eating forest trees or starving. There is nothing really unusual in this change in their diet. I do not believe that bears had to be taught to bark trees or that it was necessary for one bear to observe another bear feeding on trees before it would develop the habit."
As a result of the findings of the Foresters Society and the revelation that damage in the experimental area went in some places as high as 75%, the state game commission declared bears predators in the five counties that make up the Olympic Peninsula (mountain area roughly the size of New Jersey). There was no season, no license was required, and bear carcasses could be left in the woods. Elsewhere in Washington there was no limit on bears but a license was required. Oregon permitted hunting at any time, but did not class the bear as a predator.
Bear hunting emerged from the woods and became a respectable profession, a way of life for many. Bear hunters in Washington, for instance, may now get $475 per month, plus $25 for each black bear they kill.
Logging companies threw their lands open to sportsmen. Some 455 of the biggest timber owners invited hunters into about 42 million acres. Last spring officials of tree farms and individual land owners formed cooperative agreements so hunters would not merely be chasing bears out of tree farms into safe territory.