Dear EarthTalk: Are there humane ways of dealing with problem bears?
—Boris Yevgeny, Woodstock, NY
The best way to deal with problem bears is to prevent human-bear encounters in the first place. As human population has grown and people have encroached more and more on forested areas, bears have been forced to share what has traditionally been their domain with more and more of us.
Mostly what attracts bears is food. When people don’t dispose of food wastes properly, whether at campsites or at home, bears follow the smell and come calling. And once bears get a taste for human food scraps they will return time and again for more, increasing the chance of conflicts. Game managers at the mercy of a frightened public are left with little choice but to shoot the unwitting creatures.
But bears don’t have to die in order to resolve such conflicts. The most common alternative to the death sentence for bears is relocation. However, says Allison Jones of the non-profit Wild Utah Project, “the efficacy of this method is still debated.” She cites one study that found 81 percent of bears returning that were relocated 40 miles away or less, and 48 percent returning of those relocated 40 to 75 miles away.
One non-lethal tactic for keeping bears away was developed by the Florence, Montana-based Wind River Bear Institute (WRBI). According to WRBI founder and bear biologist Carrie Hunt, the group’s “bear shepherding” strategy involves trapping and then releasing a bear at the site of its “crime.” As the bear is released from its cage, it is shot with red pepper spray and rubber bullets. Hunt’s trained Karelian bear dogs then chase the bear, scaring it so much that it chooses not to return. While this may not seem so humane, it has succeeded in sparing the life of many a wayward bear while keeping it permanently away.
Short of such war-like tactics, WRBI’s website provides tips for homeowners on keeping bears from wandering onto property, including: packing away barbecue grills and all food scraps after meals are over; limiting compost piles to grass, leaves and garden clippings (i.e. no food); feeding pets indoors instead of outside; eliminating bird feeders and replacing hummingbird feeders with hanging flower baskets that will still attract the birds but not bears; and picking fruit from fruit trees as soon as it is ripe while also removing rotting fallen fruit from the ground.
Meanwhile, park rangers at Yosemite National Park report that human-bear encounters have decreased significantly there since they mounted an aggressive campaign to educate park visitors about bear safety. “By far, the most effective technique we’ve used is education—letting people know that their behavior, especially in regard to food storage, plays a huge role in attracting bears,” says Adrienne Freeman, a Yosemite park ranger. “Bears are not the problem; people are the problem,” she says.
The campaign seems to be working. Back in 1998, rangers reported that bears carried out $630,000 worth of property damage in more than 1,000 incidents with the park’s human visitors. But by late 2005, bears had only caused $84,000 in property damage, and the number of incidents was down 75 percent from 1998.
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