“Lasting success requires both HUMANS and BEARS to change their behaviors otherwise bears will continually get into trouble”
Southwest Alberta Bear Management Program
I began this series because of a discussion the British Columbia Food Security Network was having about how to make bears and fruit trees get along. Members in Powell River, BC were being told by their local Ministry of Environment Conservation Officers to cut down their fruit trees and then being threatened with fines if they did not comply. As a farmer, a food provisioner, and someone who is passionate about food security and community development, I was concerned by this attitude of the regional Conservation Officers. Because it is not policy (yet) on the Ministry of Environment’s site, it makes me wonder why these COs are suggesting this as a reasonable solution to the human-bear conflict. I believe it is because they are convinced by some of the myths I have outlined in previous articles (see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 of the series), in particular, the theory that humans can control bear behaviour if we remove all the attractants, which is simply not true. Furthermore, it is a ridiculous fantasy that we can live ‘in harmony’ with wildlife. As one Bear Smart BC program coordinator told me during an interview, “Living with large predators has its limitations and we can’t expect people to ignore the risks associated with bear/human conflict.”
Sadly, the only outcome of these ‘animal-centric’ ideas is for humans to be held hostage to the bears which, thanks to changes in legislation in Canada, now have the backing of the Conservation Officers and, thanks to the preservationist media agenda, now have the backing of the public at large. The New Jersey example proves that the act of withdrawing is futile (see New Jersey Bear Problem); despite the mammoth efforts to control city garbage, their bear problem is worse than ever!
As the New Jersey example shows, once you have habituated bears and then remove the attractants (food, garbage, barbeques, fruit trees) outside your home, bears will enter houses, because they are accustomed to acquiring food at those locations and are no longer afraid of humans. Instead, they see human settlements as a source of food. “We don’t know exactly how long it takes for a habituated bear to become ‘human food conditioned’ but in some observations of specific bears we have estimated it took approximately 10 days,” the Bear Smart BC program coordinator told me. What is worse, they may even consider your property part of their home range territory and defend it aggressively. While not strictly territorial by nature, bears do conduct a modified form of territorial defence (what some bear behaviour experts call ‘home range’ defence), where a bear will defend access to resources such as the best salmon spawning rivers, the best berry patches, or other areas with rich sources of food (resources) and they will defend those areas aggressively. This home range defence is an important distinction in bear behaviour that has implications for our Food Security. When you develop a food secure piece of ground in bear territory, you could find yourself (or your yard/farm) being considered part of a bear’s ‘home-range’ territory. If your yard is in prime bear habitat then it is not likely that you will end up with a young, inexperienced (or marginalized) bear, but you could end up with an older, more experienced (and thus more aggressive) bear laying claim to your fruit trees. It is even likely to be a dominant female with cubs. She may not be able to hold prime river access, but because your farm/yard/trees are close to the river, she can lay claim to that habitat. In other words, you could end up with a bear that is willing to fight aggressively to keep (or take) the access to the fruit trees. Females with cubs are an even more dangerous situation because of the ‘cub-defence’ behaviour — the most common type of bear aggression towards people that results in injury. Younger or more inexperienced bears can sometimes be deterred more easily (with bear bangers, or dogs, loud noises, electric fences, and so on) but more experienced and/or determined bears (especially females with cubs) will not be so easily deterred — especially if they have had access to this food source over time. For the most part, it is the younger bears which are being forced to access people’s yards (around cities and less wild spaces) but it is certainly not always the case.
The typical bear to get into trouble with people is a sub-adult between 2 to 5 years old for Black Bears, and 3 to 5 years old for Grizzlies. Black bear cubs stay with the sow for two years and Grizzly cubs stay three years. After that they are forced to fend for themselves and at that point they become very vulnerable. Sub-adults are vulnerable to predation by other bears, cougars and wolves, so they are forced further away from their original home range territory. Sub-adult males are bolder than females and they are usually the first source of the conflict. The next ones to get up close to homes are sows with cubs. These sows approach human development for the same reasons that sub-adults do, to stay away from predators, especially dominant male bears. Because of this, they choose “safe zones” where the dominant males (as well as other predators) are less likely to be present. Drawn in by their strong sense of smell to the odours around homes, these bears explore for opportunities. Because we are no longer trapping, snaring, and shooting these intruders, these bears quickly learn that human settlements are a safe haven so they push the envelop. It is here that the trouble begins and finding a solution becomes paramount. We can categorise bears, regardless of species, in three ways.:
1. Wild – No previous experience with humans.
2. Human Wise – They know what humans are; they have seen them, smelled and heard them.
3. Habituated – These bears are accustomed to being around people and have learned not to fear them. These are by far the most dangerous kind of bear to deal with.
Wild bears and human wise bears are not problem bears, only potentially problem bears. Problem bears are habituated bears. In order to address those bears effectively, humans have to accept that we are part of the problem and change our behaviours accordingly. If we want to keep these animals alive then a mammoth effort in lifestyle change is required. Step one is to acknowledge that we are in competition with them for resources (food, land, access to food sources, waterways, etc — even if we are vegan) and step two is to act accordingly. Here are the four main ways we may minimise the human-bear conflict: 1. We can stop habituating bears to our food sources by not putting any food into garbage cans in our neighbourhoods or into community garbage dumps. Professor Stephen Herrero found villagers in Italy surrounded by mountains and bears, who, despite growing much of their own food, keeping fruit trees, and composting in they own yards, do not have bear problems. He documents his experience in the village in his book, Bear Attacks Revised: their cause and avoidance. The people in these Italian mountain communities put NO food garbage into their dumps! Not a drop. In addition, the households compost all their own food and thus the bears do not become accustomed to human waste food in the towns or at the dumps. They also defend their settlements so the bears know not to come to town and that humans are a threat.
2. We can keep bears wild by delineating preservation areas for bears where humans are not allowed to go. As a May 2010 Sierra Club Canada Media Release so rightly states, we must “… protect adequate amounts of grizzly bear habitat and restrict the number of open routes and motorized access in other places.”
3. We can make bears more human wise by defending our territory aggressively. Enter The Wind River Bear Institute and their ‘Parters-in-Life’ program. An innovative leader in this work, the Wind River Bear Institute uses non-lethal methods of reducing the human-bear conflict problems. Their goal is to teach the bears and humans how to avoid conflict. Their mission is ‘to reduce human-caused bear mortality and conflicts worldwide to ensure the continued survival of all species of bears for future generations’. When a ‘nuisance’ bear shows up, a dog trainer and team are dispatched to aggressively defend the property and/or human settlement a bear is encroaching upon. This technique is called ‘bear shepherding’: the idea behind it is to teach bears to recognize that humans have territorial boundaries and they are not welcome inside them. Of her program, Hunt says, “We have developed a system for teaching safe, meaningful lessons to bears and use a variety of loud noises, rubber projectiles and Karelian Bear Dog (KBD) Wildlife Service Dogs (WSDs) to safely ‘herd’ bears out of off-limit areas such as roadways, campgrounds, developed sites, and back country camps.” It is the aim of The Wind River Bear Institute (WRBI) to successfully ‘retrain’ the bears to recognize humans and see them as a threat to be avoided. “Because our lessons are based on wild bear behavior, the bears are taught to view us as much like a dominant bear and learn to avoid human developed sites as ‘our’ territory.” Because the technique is based in wild animal behaviour, it can be used as a template for other animals that pose human-wildlife conflict. The WRBI has also used this shepherding technique with cougars, moose, big horn sheep, and wolves. Enter the government. Our government officials could put more money into supporting programs like the Partners-in-Life, and have Conservation Officers trained to do Bear Shepherding. We could also give back land owners some power through policy changes, and allow them to defend their territory as a preventative measure. This could entail trapping, snaring, and shooting if necessary. Property owners should not have to wait until a bear is habituated to their land before something can be done. They should not have to wait until the bear has broken into their chicken shed and killed every chicken before a Conservation Officer is dispatched to ‘deal’ with the problem bear. After all, once the chickens are all dead the bear is no longer a problem!
Destroying the bears is not the only way to deal with them, but sadly, sometimes it is the only solution. Habituated bears are very difficult to discourage. A Bear Smart BC program coordinator admitted, “some bears get too possessive and aggressive around people’s homes and there is no other solution but to destroy them… As a program our first responsibility is to human safety.” He is speaking from experience not from emotion. Why not simply relocate problem bears? An article in the Journal of Wildlife Management by Blanchard and Knight (1995) states, “Because of low survival and high return rates [of relocated bears], transporting grizzly bears should be considered a final action to eliminate a conflict situation.” Many relocated bears die either by fighting with other bears in their newly relocated to territory, or by fighting with bears whose territory they have to cross in order to get back to their own home range territory. Because of the low survival rate (and the high resource use and transportation costs), bear biologist Carrie Hunt implores, “relocation and destruction must fade into history as something we do as an exception rather than the norm.”
4. We can control our population growth. We must control our population and limit our growth, period. Otherwise, there will be no space left for bears or any other wild creatures to thrive. What you ‘can’ do: Removing food sources from bears has its merits and does make a positive difference in reducing conflict. The Bear Smart BC program has been working with bear-resistant garbage can makers who have developed some successful and innovative solutions. In order for any container to received bear-resistant status it must undergo stringent testing through the Living with Wildlife with Wildlife Foundation in Wyoming.
One particular maker, Tye Dee Bins, makes metal bins that, during their test trials, no bear could get into no matter how hard they tried. Electric fencing has come a long way over recent years and installation is the key to dissuading bears from trying to reach a garden, fruit trees or even barns. Bear Smart has obtained effective electric fencing from Gallagher Fencing, a New Zealand Company which came to BC and trained the Bear Smart Program Delivery Specialists on the proper installation of their electric fencing. It is paramount that the bears do not defeat the fence when they attempt to access food. In the Kootenays, BC, Grizzlies had been attacking chicken coops and pig pens, so Bear Smart BC staff responded to complaints and erected a Gallagher electric fence. After one successful electric shot, they find that the bears get the message and never return. The down side to the electric fencing is its high cost.