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Bear Country: People and Bears Learn to Coexist

Bear-friendly conflict resolution proves we can live in and with the wild without destroying it.

All Animals magazine

  • Photo: Pete Cairns/NPL/Minden Pictures

by Karen E. Lange

Meet the new neighbors—and surprise, they don’t want to eat you. As human and black bear populations expand and overlap, this native animal is under fire. But bear-friendly strategies show what can happen when we put down the guns and start cleaning up our acts.

It was when Robert Scott ran into three black bears on their way to his kitchen that he realized things had to change. The mother bear and her cubs had broken through two screen doors and entered the porch of his Wintergreen, Va., home on that night in 2007. When they found the door to the kitchen locked, the discouraged bears left. But they kept busting into other homes—someone must have given them food—and later in the summer a mother and two cubs, believed to be the same trio, were shot by authorities. All told, nine bears were killed or relocated that year and the next for rummaging in Wintergreen.

Scott and his wife, Sarah, had bought a retirement home in the resort community near the Blue Ridge Parkway to live amongst wildlife. To the couple’s delight, as they sat on their screened porch, they would occasionally see a bear walk to a stream below their house to get a drink of water.

But within just a few years, they were watching bears killed after being tempted into the area by bird feeders and easily opened trash cans. Virginia’s black bear population has rebounded in recent decades, helped by limits on hunting and the return of forest. Once pushed to the extreme west of the state, today bears roam every county except those on the eastern fringe. Looking for a way to live with their new wild neighbors, the Scotts began doing online research. They found an approach that’s worked in places across the United States and Canada: not the hunting often presented as a commonsense response to growing human encounters with bears, but a gentler and far more effective answer that goes by different names, including Bear Aware, Bear Wise, and Bear Smart.

Using information from the Get Bear Smart Society in British Columbia—which has the most bears of any region in North America—the Scotts and other interested residents formed a council to educate people about not feeding bears, either directly or indirectly. Soon, the Wintergreen Property Owners Association board  approved a ban on bird feeding from April to December, plus a requirement that garbage be either kept indoors or stored in locked, bear-resistant dumpsters.

The Bear Smart Council also advised the hundreds of full-time residents and temporary visitors to take simple steps like cleaning grills and keeping pet food inside. Most people complied. By 2009, break-ins stopped and the number of bears killed or removed dropped to zero.

“We still have a lot of bears, but they’re acting more like they’re supposed to,” says Scott. “... They’re pretty shy, unless they get human food. ... Most of the time you never see them.”

That’s good news for a species that has seen human civilization advance to its doorstep. As black bear numbers increase in North America—to an estimated 950,000, up more than 20 percent since the late ’80s—and as more people move into bear habitat, encounters between bears and humans have risen. Trophy hunters have seized the opportunity to demand that hunts be reintroduced or expanded. But experts understand better than ever how people and bears can coexist peacefully, even deep in the woods, even in years when natural food is scarce or in places where both humans and bears are plentiful. To begin with, people have to understand who black bears really are—and it’s not the fearsome creatures of popular myth who rise up on their hind legs, teeth bared, and have to be killed before they themselves kill.

Bear Country, Part 2: In the Line of Fire » 


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