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August 25, 2011

Bear Country, Part 3: Putting Humans on Their Best Behavior

To keep bears alive, programs teach both people and bears to change how they behave.

All Animals magazine

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Beyond the fact that hunting is ineffective at reducing conflicts, the very premise that it’s needed to defend people from a dangerous species is flawed, a notion based on misunderstandings about the animal’s behavior. Contrary to common portrayals, a bear rising up on his hind legs is trying to get a better view and whiff of his surroundings, not prepare for a fight; the rare black bear mother who bluffs a charge and clacks her teeth is trying to drive off threats to her cubs, not attack.

Rather than a bloodthirsty predator, the black bear is really a conflict-averse omnivore who would prefer not to even meet up with people, let alone attack them. The animal’s nature evolved over millennia, when the species shared North America with larger, now-extinct carnivores such as saber-toothed cats and dire wolves, writes Rogers. Those black bears who hid or ran away from such predators survived to reproduce, passing on genes that make the average Ursus americanus anything but belligerent.

While many researchers keep their distance from bears, Rogers spends his days in the woods studying the animals up close—and in 30 years, no bear has ever harmed him. “Bears are not the ferocious animals I once thought,” he says. “... I can put [radio] collars on bears without using tranquilizers; I can walk with them.”

Bears are predictable, says University of Calgary biologist Stephen Herrero, who has also spent a career studying them. “There’s no question that it’s possible for people and bears to coexist without serious problems if we’re willing to manage our food and garbage,” says Herrero, lead author of the study on fatal bear attacks. “... If you’re willing to [do this], the bears, they become nonentities; they start to ignore you.”

When Rutgers professor Edward Tavss went looking for evidence that hunting reduces human-bear conflicts, he couldn’t find any—not in New York, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, or Ontario. Instead, in each of those places, as hunting increased, complaints about bears also did.

Shooting them in the hindquarters with rubber bullets ... may not seem very nice, but it saves the lives of bears who would otherwise be killed.

What works, according to Tavss’ study, are nonviolent approaches like those used in Wintergreen, Va., combined with aversive conditioning—driving troublesome bears off. This can be done by shouting, gesturing aggressively, throwing sticks or stones or tennis balls, setting off firecrackers, putting up electrified fences, spraying animals in the face with repellent, and shooting them in the hindquarters with rubber bullets. Such treatment may not seem very nice, but it saves the lives of bears who would otherwise be killed. In places where people adopted nonviolent approaches like bear-resistant garbage containers, complaints fell markedly: Minnesota, New Jersey, Nevada, Ontario’s Elliot Lake, Juneau, Yosemite National Park.

In Yellowstone National Park, human injuries from black bears had averaged almost 50 a year from the 1930s through the 1950s, when people were leaving garbage around campsites and hand-feeding animals along the road. In 1970, the park banned that behavior and installed bear-resistant containers for garbage and food, like the $850, 30-cubic-foot steel storage boxes now available to campers. During the last two decades, just three people have been injured by black bears (the park gets 3.6 million visitors a year).

Yellowstone visitors still do foolish things. When they see a bear in a meadow, some leave their cars and approach within 15 to 20 feet (they’re supposed to stay 100 yards away). Bear management biologist Kerry Gunther has seen as many as 100 people around a single bear, gawking. Fortunately, because food’s not involved, no one gets hurt.

Read how the Bear Aware Team has reduced human-bear conflict in a Colorado town. »

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which has 1,600 black bears (two per square mile) and more than 9 million annual visitors, follows a similar approach. At backcountry campsites, visitors use cables to hoist edibles out of reach—everything down to food-stained clothes and tubes of toothpaste. Picnic areas are closed early so staff can peel foil off grills and collect partially eaten hot dogs before nightfall. In parts of the park where natural food sources like cherry trees and deer fawns draw bears into crowded areas, rangers drive them off with paintballs and rubber buckshot.

For $4,600 per pair, Carrie Hunt of the Wind River Bear Institute in Montana provides wildlife agencies with a means of humanely chasing bears even farther: specially selected and trained Karelian bear dogs. Developed to hunt big game, this breed is known for fearlessness, persistence, and independence. Guided by Hunt or trained agency staff, the leashed dogs tree bears in the woods. The dogs are taken off their leashes to further scare them (without making contact), then are leashed again and the bears allowed to escape.

“We teach the resident bears what the rules are: ‘This is mine, and if you cross this boundary, we’re going to chase you out, and it will hurt,’ ” says Hunt. “... The easiest thing for the bear to do is leave. We never ask the bear to do something that he can’t.”

Bear Country, Part 4: Court of Last Resort »

Read more from the current issue of All Animals»

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