Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Washington bill would ban feeding of wildlife

Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - Page updated at 12:31 AM

Bill in state House would ban feeding of wildlife
By Lillian Tucker

Seattle Times staff reporter

OLYMPIA - State Rep. Kevin Van De Wege has a message for animal lovers: Don't feed the bears.

Or the cougars, the wolves, the coyotes, the deer, the elk and the raccoons, for that matter.

Van De Wege is sponsoring legislation that would outlaw the feeding of such wildlife, to prevent animals from becoming habituated and causing problems when they come looking for an easy meal.

Working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Van De Wege, D-Sequim, wanted to develop a law that could be used when agitated neighbors call to complain about the lawn next door being used as a wildlife feeding lot.

The measure, ESHB 1885, was first introduced last year but didn't make it out of committee. It was brought up again this year and passed the House last month with a 55-41 vote.

Van De Wege said that since he was elected in 2006, constituents have come to him with complaints about deer overpopulation. When he heard that Fish and Wildlife was having problems with people feeding bears, he decided it was time for legislation.

At a public hearing about the proposal last year, citizens from Sequim testified that the deer were too comfortable in their community -- littering yards with droppings, showing no fear of humans, crossing roadways and attracting cougars.

Mary Schilder, with the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, spoke in support of the new law. PAWS, she said, receives about 3,500 calls a year about conflicts with wildlife as a result of intentional and unintentional feeding. Raccoons especially are a nuisance, Schilder said. Stories of neighborhood coyotes snacking on pets have added steam to the proposed feeding ban.

Not everyone has trouble getting along with wildlife in their backyard.

Reed Merrill has lived near Bellingham for 40 years and for more than half of that time he's been feeding the deer.

"They are the sweetest things in the world," said Merrill in a phone interview. His property is on a greenbelt that borders a heavily developed area. The greenbelt provides about 1.5 square miles of foliage for the animals to feed on, he said. But Merrill and his neighbor supplement the animals' diet.

He purchases cattle feed recommended by a veterinarian for the 15 or so deer that he feeds in the winter.

"They are essentially starving if we don't feed them," Merrill said.

Fish and Wildlife provides tips on its Web site for attracting deer and elk by creating natural incentives, such as cultivating favored plants, rather than by feeding. Bruce Bjork, chief of enforcement for the department, said the main point is to keep wild animals wild.

There are times when Fish and Wildlife does participate in supplemental feeding programs for struggling populations, such as elk and bighorn sheep in the L.T. Murray and Wenas wildlife areas near Ellensburg, and the wildlife area near Mt. St. Helens. These efforts would be allowed under the legislation, as would other state-approved feeding programs. Zoos and wildlife rehabilitators also would be exempt, and the law wouldn't extend to bird feeders.

"It is nobody's intention to be cracking down on people that occasionally throw apples to deer." said Van De Wege. "The goal is to keep deer and elk out of neighborhood settings."

Enforcement would be based on complaints, Bjork said. Penalties would be tiered, starting with a warning and possibly ending with a natural-resource civil infraction, which the department said can range from no fine to a $500 penalty.

The Senate Natural Resources, Ocean and Recreation Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill Thursday at 10 a.m.

Lillian Tucker: 360-236-8266 or ltucker@seattletimes.com



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