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.
In the line of fire
More than 33,000 black bears are killed each year using some of the most inhumane methods imaginable.
As successful as the Bear Smart approach generally is, though, it has its limits, as shown by the experience of Whistler, a resort community in British Columbia near Vancouver. After the resort opened in the 1980s, Whistler quickly grew in a valley inhabited by about 100 black bears. As development marched up the hillsides, it obliterated the vegetation and berries bears once fed on. Eventually, the houses of nearly 10,000 residents overran almost all the elevations that were low and warm enough to grow plants bears eat. The result: more years when the woods didn’t produce enough food and animals went hungry.
Most of Whistler’s residents secure their trash and don’t keep birdseed or any other foods outside. But still the bears come around in lean years; even if they’ve never been fed, they’re not going to lie down in the woods and starve. When bears find windows or doors open or unlocked—which occurs often, no matter how much Sylvia Dolson of the Get Bear Smart Society reminds people to secure them—the animals enter houses and are subsequently killed. In 2010, when natural food was scarce, 11 hungry bears were killed. As an alternative, Dolson hopes a local wildlife management agency will temporarily feed bears away from people’s homes.
Rogers and his fellow researcher Ann Bryant of the Bear League in Lake Tahoe say this type of intervention, known as diversionary feeding, may be the only way to keep bears in certain places from raiding people’s fruit trees or breaking into homes when natural food runs short. At an international bear association conference in July, both presented papers showing that the next year, bears go back to eating natural food.
Rogers did his research at a U.S. Forest Service campground in Minnesota where six bears had been removed for aggressively pursuing human food. People believed someone had left out food the bears had gotten a taste for. But Rogers says hunger, not feeding, drove bears to the campsites. By giving the animals beef fat, he reduced problems at the campground by 88 percent. Conflict stayed low in 1985, when weather conditions made food especially scarce for bears in Minnesota and complaints soared across most of the state.
“You can lead bears into trouble with food,” says Rogers. “But you can also lead bears out of trouble.”
In 2007 in Lake Tahoe, a major drought and two forest fires meant no fruit, acorns, or pinecones for the valley’s 600 bears. As many as 25 homes were broken into by hungry bears every night. The California Department of Fish and Game told Bryant’s group not to do diversionary feeding. But she and 200 volunteers did it anyway, placing apples donated by an orchard, as well as nuts and sunflower seeds, farther and farther into the woods. Immediately, the bears stopped going into homes. That winter, instead of 50 to 100 bears denning in the crawlspaces beneath people’s houses, they all found dens in the woods. The next year was the slowest on record for complaints.
Diversionary feeding is controversial and still relatively uncommon. John Hadidian, director of urban wildlife for The HSUS, says it’s an intriguing idea but must be approached with caution. “The problem is, the concept being out there, the general public is going to try it,” he says. Instead, such feeding should be done only by experts—who understand bears’ behavior and nutritional needs—and only if everything else has been tried and failed.
Whatever the approach, it’s clear that intervention is necessary. In encroaching on land the bears once had to themselves, we’ve altered the natural balance and become involved in the fate of these animals. As long as our strategies involve careful, informed choices and not hunters’ guns, we can live in and with the wild without having to destroy it. “It’s our responsibility to solve the problem,” says Bryant. ”And that doesn’t mean shooting all the bears.”
Safety tips for bear country
Being bear-aware will keep you and the bears safe.
- Don’t place food near open windows or feed pets outdoors. Clean food scraps and grease from grills. Empty refrigerators when leaving for extended periods.
- Keep garbage, recycled materials, compost, and pet food indoors, or use specially made bear-resistant containers. Freeze smelly leftovers and don’t put trash out until garbage day.
- Keep doors and windows locked, or locked open with a gap too small for bears. To reduce odor, spray disinfectant around doors and windows and inside trash cans.
- Take hummingbird feeders inside at night. Hang all other types of feeders only in winter.
- Minimize fallen fruit, weeds, overgrown grass, and other attractants of bear prey such as mice or voles. Stack firewood on pallets away from the house and remove bark, which can house bear-attracting insects.
- Chase black bears out of your yard by shouting or throwing sticks, stones, or tennis balls. You may need to direct bear repellent (pepper spray) at the animal’s face or call wildlife managers for assistance.