People are Hairless Bears: a window into human/bear conflict

Okay, maybe we aren’t exactly hairless bears, but I guarantee you that we have more similarities than you think.  With any luck, you’ll walk away from this article seeing yourself (and bears) in a very different light, and it will help you understand why conflicts with bears are simpler than previously thought.  Let’s warm up with a few questions:

  1. If some jerk at a ball game tried to pick a fight with you over a bag of peanuts, would it be worth your effort?
  2. If you only had enough food for today and no idea if you’d have any for a week, would you share with the guy down the street?
  3. Now, what if…your only hope of survival for you and your kids was to steal food from someone else, would you do it?

If you answered the first two with a ‘no’ and the third with a resounding ‘YES’, then you’re more bear-like than you think.  Time to embrace your primitive side!  It guides you without speaking and shapes you without moving; it is designed to keep you alive and safe.  Not surprisingly, the same goes for bears.  Yet, we still don’t understand them, and it has caused us to inflict more harm upon them than they have ever done to us.  Throughout history bears have been misjudged and misinterpreted, sometimes persecuted, and other times killed.  They’ve been enslaved, tormented, and exhibited for our entertainment.  But everything we’ve done to bears we’ve also done to fellow humans, right?  We certainly have the tendency to be violent and dominating, but we can also be gentle and compassionate.  Some bears can be nuisances and others have killed people, but they’re capable of amazing tenderness, too.  So resolving conflicts with bears is not as difficult as it might seem; it just requires us to tap into our primitive selves…a look in the evolutionary mirror.  You see, the simplest parts of ourselves are more like bears deep down than we’ll ever admit, yet there are also important differences that separate our species and stand in the way of our understanding.  We have developed complex social and economic systems that bears don’t understand, and it is on these fronts that trouble brews.

Human/bear conflict is nothing new, but over the past few decades conflicts seem to be growing out of control.  People are pushing outward, bears are moving in- livestock damage, crop damage, property damage, death…what is happening?  Bears and humans have become neighbors, and neighbors argue.  Quite often they have pretty good reasons, if only that our garbage smells really good.  Wildlife agencies can reduce the conflict temporarily, but YOU can help make it stop for good.  This article will help you understand the causes of conflicts and what you need to do to resolve them.  It is based on the best scientific information available and will give you excellent tools and resources to deal with bear conflicts effectively.  But first, a little information about bears will help you understand why conflicts arise in the first place, and might replace some of what you think you know!

Bear Facts

Fear…the engine that drives our fascination with bears.  When I mention that I work with bears, almost everyone has a bear story that invariably includes a huge male or the proverbial ‘mama bear’ on a mission.  Ninety-nine percent of the time though- nobody gets hurt!  Yet, we still fear them.  Why?  Part of that is history, and the other is the fear of the unknown or what we can’t control, especially if it can kill us.  With bears, there is always the risk of getting mauled, but the more you learn the safer you’ll be.  The truth is that most bears don’t want to hurt people, but neither do they want to go for mani-pedis or to the driving range (though you might get one to dinner).  The reasons for this are four-fold:

Bear Fact #1:   Bears live in a society where personal space is very important. 

Bears are pretty content living alone, and most of this comes down to food.  The nuts, berries, and bugs that are so important to bears are small and can be spread out over several miles.  If there were too many bears sharing, they either wouldn’t get enough or they’d have to travel too far to find it.  Bears have adapted to this by living alone and defending food and space to make sure they have enough.  Importantly, bears might also defend personal space against threats to family as well.  What does all this mean to you?  Bears don’t understand our societal rules.  If they find unprotected foods, it’s fair game; they may claim it for their own and could even defend it as such.  If you surprise them in a place where they feel cornered, don’t be surprised if they protect their family.  This is a great segue into Fact #2:

Bear Fact #2:  Bears don’t like to fight and have amazing powers of restraint.  They can (and do) rip off car doors and tear holes in walls, but they can also nurture cubs that weigh less than a pound and pick up a peanut between their claws.  Their ability to control their power is nothing short of amazing.  Fortunately for us, most black bear attacks on people result in only minor cuts and scratches; and for every attack there are literally thousands of harmless encounters.  The point is, they rarely ever use their full force.  Why?  Because not only must bears eat a lot, they must save it, too!  Surviving through a winter without food is no small picnic, so energy savings is paramount.  Fighting burns more energy than running away or clambering up a tree, and fighting can also result in injury.  For bears, seemingly minor injuries can mean death.  Imagine trying to eat with a broken jaw.  Amazingly, bears weigh these risks and benefits.  “Is this barbecue worth fighting over” they might ponder?  Bears are forced to make the best with what is available, and they can usually find enough natural food to survive and reproduce.  On the other hand, starvation is the leading cause of death for bears, so their survival might depend on eating things that belong to us, but those that risk eating human foods often end up dead.  Which would you risk, starvation or a bullet?

Bear Fact #3:  A bear’s natural foods change with the seasons, and sometimes they aren’t available at all.  Whether it is berries, acorns, or other animals, Mother Nature doesn’t always provide food in quantities that bears need.  Furthermore, most of their regular foods are only available for a few weeks or months.  Relate back to Fact #2, where bears risk conflict with humans if it means food for survival.  If their normal foods are short on supplies, they can’t just drive to the supermarket.  In these cases, bears will risk more to survive.  Sometimes this means leaving home for greener pastures, and other times it means raiding garbage cans.  In many cases, bears can and will return to their natural foods when they are available again, and we’ll talk more about what it means when they don’t and why this happens.

Bear Fact #4:  Being a bear is not equal opportunity employment.  Even though bears will usually avoid fighting, they are still subject to Mother Nature.  In many cases, they must work very hard to find enough food and have kids.  The result of that competition drives bears to be the best and biggest, and that includes the quality of habitat they defend.  Sometimes less-dominant bears are excluded from the best habitats and take up residence around humans.  Equate this to having money for a nice house versus only being able to afford an apartment.  Adult males are typically the dominant ones that get the prime spots, followed by adult females, juvenile males, and juvenile females.  A mother bear may be quite formidable by herself, but her cubs are vulnerable.  She may choose safer locations around people instead of risking conflicts with other bears.  Bears will come and go, and the pecking order changes in the quest to survive.

Conflicts with Bears

It’s no secret that human populations continue to grow and spread, and bears are on the rebound as well after they were nearly exterminated many decades ago.  Bears are amazingly resourceful creatures, so they’ll live wherever they can find food and raise a family.  Living amongst us humans it isn’t always a choice for them though.  Remember, bears compete for space, and dominant bears take the best locations.  Sometimes the only space left is shared with us.  There are several ways that bears can come into conflict with humans, but the most common ones, in order of greatest to least, are almost always related to food:

CONFLICT #1. GARBAGE.  Whether it’s in a can, garage, dumpster, or landfill, bears will find it and eat it.  Our high-calorie foods do the same thing for bears that they do for us: make them fat, and the fatter the better!!  A well-fed bear can live more comfortably and make healthier cubs.  The problem is that this draws them into our neighborhoods and campsites and they learn that this is okay.  It costs us money in property damages, causes human safety issues from encounters and car accidents, and ultimately results in the death of the bear…ALWAYS.

CONFLICT #2. Other Foods.  This includes pet food, bird seed, and human foods (including barbecue grills).  Lots of things are attractive to bears, even things like citronella, some dish soaps, and personal care products.  In fact, think of all the things that your dog might get into then multiply by two.  For some reason, bears are even attracted to weird things like portable gas cans or used motor oil.  As with garbage, bears find these things, exploit them, and end up in trouble.

CONFLICT #3. Livestock, Bees & Crops.  Among these three, damage to honey bee villages are the most common, and bears cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages every year in the U.S.  Raids usually occur during peak honey season, but fortunately most damages cost less than $1,000 per farm.  In some areas, cattle, goats, sheep and pigs are killed by bears.  Black bears typically target the young and only kill one at a time.  But here’s the thing, bears have shared habitat with livestock for generations, and most bears never cause problems.  Sometimes bears are blamed for killing livestock simply because they stole the carcass from another predator that killed it.  Mountain lions, coyotes, wolves, and even packs of dogs will kill livestock, so find the real culprit if you can.  Two good clues are that bears are one of the few predators that bury their victims and rip open the abdomen.

Crops like corn and oats, and fruit trees like apples, plums, and pears, are common foods for bears, too.  Usually, the damages to crops are less than 1% of the overall plot.  Look for patches of flattened stalks with trails connecting them and corn cobs entirely consumed.  With fruit trees, bears will break entire limbs off fruit trees, so if it’s the only one in your yard no one will blame you for being upset.

CONFLICT #4. Personal Encounters.  The physical harm to humans by bears is by far the least common conflict.  But, because it generates fear and makes the news it is probably the biggest reason folks are concerned about having bears around.  In reality, your risk of getting hurt by a bear is many times less than getting injured doing everyday things around your house or playing with a neighborhood dog.  Yeah yeah, you’ve heard all of that, right?  What about the infamous ‘mother with cubs’?  Fact: In a sudden encounter with a wild Black bear, even mothers with cubs will usually run, climb a tree, or run while her cubs climb a tree.  In very rare cases bears are aggressive, and we’ll soon talk about why and what to do.  But first, we need to talk about what happens to bears when they are around us a lot or get a lot of our foods.

Habituation & Food Conditioning

When it comes to understanding bears and their relationship to people, researchers have identified some common themes that are important to know.  The two most important are habituation and food-conditioning.  The two terms are used interchangeably, but they are very different concepts.  They are conditions that take time to develop, and if you catch them early, they are easier to fix!  So, let’s break it down:

Habituation

Habituation is a psychological response where a behavior conducted repeatedly without negative consequences may become a habit.  For instance, if a bear repeatedly encounters people without feeling threatened by them, the bear might stop running away.  Eventually, a fully habituated bear learns that people are not a threat to family, food, or space, and will tolerate them at very close distances.  This does not mean a bear is tame!  Remember personal space?  Don’t feed it, don’t approach it, and don’t touch it…EVER.  Feeding a bear teaches it that they can get strange and wonderful foods from humans, and then you have a new problem on your hands:  food conditioning.

Food Conditioning

If bears consistently receive human foods without cost, they might continue to exploit it.  When you hear the words ‘problem’ or ‘nuisance’ bear, that’s usually what it means.  Food-conditioning is when bears expect food from us.  They break things, and they can hurt people.  Bears that don’t rely on human foods but show up once or twice for a midnight snack are misdemeanor bears.  They aren’t fully food-conditioned, so after a rubber bullet to the hip or a night in the slammer they might learn the rules.  That is, if you get rid of the goodies!  If the condition progresses, the bear could end up ‘hooked’ on people food.  These are the felons of the bear world, and they end up dead.

Now wait, just because a bear comes looking for cheeseburgers doesn’t mean they are food-conditioned.  Remember Mother Nature?  In the ‘boom’ years, conflict behavior drops because bears have plenty to eat.  In ‘bust’ years, bears might need a little extra to get them through.  In these cases, a bear that isn’t ‘hooked’ on Mickey D’s will probably go back to the Paleo diet as soon as it can…especially if we take that food away.  Am I suggesting that we feed bears people food?  NO, I’m saying that there may be good reasons for that bear’s behavior, and we need to change the way we’re managing our food and waste.

Ways to Resolve Conflict

So, what can we do to help with problem bears and why can’t we just call wildlife services?  Wildlife agencies are awesome, and they do have a reasonably effective toolkit of ‘reactive’ strategies to deal with nuisance bears.  Reactive management deals with the bear after the conflict has occurred and includes things like translocation, aversive conditioning, and diversionary feeding.

  1. Translocation is simply trapping a bear in an enclosure, driving it out of town, and releasing it somewhere else. This strategy works best with young males, since they leave home anyway in search of their own territory, but most bears like their home just as much as you.  They’ll use their excellent senses to find their way back from many miles away, and a lot of bears die trying to do it.
  2. Sometimes, a bear is released at the same site where it was captured but they will use aversive conditioning, or ‘hazing’ when they open the trap door. Aversive conditioning is the process of trying to train the bear not to mess with your stuff.  They use things like rubber bullets, flash-bang devices, and specially trained dogs to make life temporarily miserable for disorderly bears.  All in all, aversive conditioning is most effective when dogs, guns, and other undesirables are all used together multiple times and over multiple days.  It does a good job for a short time, but bears are very smart and learn where they can get away with unacceptable behavior.  Many return to nuisance behavior within a few months.
  3. Diversionary feeding is another strategy that discourages bears from conflict behavior by providing an alternate food source. When used correctly it can be successful at deterring bears from damaging commercial tree farms, campgrounds, or livestock.  Remember, this is a strategy that should be left to the professionals!

Generally, the more food-conditioned a bear becomes, the less effective these methods become. Killing the nuisance bear is usually a last resort, but if the bear is too food-conditioned, there isn’t any realistic way to turn back.  Sound hopeless?  It’s not; the life and death of the bear is in YOUR hands.  An ounce of prevention is worth a thousand cures!

Proactive is Productive: the 3 ‘R’s

Prevention, also known as ‘proactive management’, attempts to keep conflict behaviors from happening by changing human behavior.  Proactive strategies can also be used retrospectively as well.  These are, by far, the best and only sure way to deal with bear conflicts.  Following these rules of thumb will help keep you, your family, and your property protected from bears much of the time:

REMOVE

CLOSE THE RESTAURANT!  Don’t be stubborn or lackadaisical about this; remove anything that might be attractive to a bear.  Apply this in and around the home, the car, and in the backcountry by securing canned or fresh foods, leftovers, and garbage, as well as pet foods and bird seed.  Put them in a location or container where bears can’t get them or smell them; garages don’t always work.  Make sure you clean your grill well or lock it up, and put your bird feeder away from spring to fall.  If you have a farm, pick ripe fruits and vegetables and remove all the fallen fruit.  Try wrapping the trunks of fruit trees with metal flashing from the ground up to about 6-8 feet if possible.  In the backcountry, foods should always be cooked and stored away from sleeping areas and where bears cannot get to them (bear canister or tree hang).  There is a lot of good information on how to do this properly; search engines are your friend, and read the books listed below!

If you have livestock, start looking for bear sign in the area such as tracks and scat.  Maybe you already know where the trails or the berry patches are?  Bears also like to follow streams, logging roads, or ridgetops and will follow the path of least resistance.  Remove their temptation by changing the way you place your herds.  Remove bone piles, locate birthing areas closer in, and pay attention to areas that are prone to bear attacks such as where dense forest meets pasture or along waterways.  Ranchers and farmers have also had success with crop and herd rotation; changing the locations minimizes the likelihood of a bear developing a routine.  If you’re starting an orchard or garden plot from scratch or have a bunch of bee hives, try to contain everything where it can be surrounded by a three to six-foot electric fence.  Search online for information on electric bear fences and you’re sure to hit the mark.  Improper installation is the leading cause of fence failure, so make sure you do it correctly.

Finally, remove or reduce the chance of a surprise encounter or remove yourself from a dangerous situation. This includes preparing for an encounter, because if you live or play in bear country you should always assume that you’ll eventually meet a bear.  Go over the plan with your group.  Stay in a tight group as you walk (3 or more is safest), keep your dog with you and your pepper spray handy.  Dogs are notorious for getting bears to chase them back to you.  Also, don’t camp near a bear trail, an unkempt campground, or where bear signs abound (like tracks and scat).  Reduce the chances of a surprise encounter by making noise while you are hiking, such as singing or talking.  Keep a handful of dry twigs to snap them as you walk.  If you see a bear that doesn’t see you, do the wise thing and leave the area.  DON’T get close for a selfie!!  That’s how people get hurt.

RESPOND

If by chance you’ve taken the necessary precautions and removed the attractants but the bear just tries harder, your response will be to try something new.  Move on to the ‘Reevaluate’ section.  In the event of an encounter with a Black bear that sees you, be ready to tailor your response to how the bear responds to you.  One of the best things you can do first is to stop, take a breath, and remember there is very little danger.  Then, speak calmly to the bear as you attempt to remove yourself from the situation.  The bear won’t understand your words, but it may understand your tone and posture.  Also, speaking helps you breathe-off that initial rush of adrenaline.  The ‘fight or flight’ response isn’t going to help you yet.  Stand up straight, don’t make prolonged eye contact, and don’t run.  Continue talking, and slowly wave your arms to help the bear identify you as a human.

Next, pay attention to what the bear is saying.  There are great books on this listed at the end, but the basics are:

  1. Usually, they’ll leave and spare you the trouble. Be respectful and leave, too.
  2. What are its eyes doing? If they are avoiding eye contact by looking to the side or glancing in your direction, that’s good.  Staring intently is different.
  3. Look at the head, ears, and mouth. Is the head down or up, to the side or facing you?  Is its mouth open or closed and are its ears forward or back?  A bear with its head high, showing its canines with ears back is not a happy bear.
  4. Finally, listen for vocalizations. Huffing, blowing, or banging teeth together are signs of tension or nervousness.  The bear is telling you that it’s uncomfortable with you.  Move away slowly!
  5. If it stands up- keep your shorts on; it is simply trying to get a better feel for the situation.

If you have not deescalated the situation and the bear doesn’t leave, the bear might just be curious.  Or, it might have learned that it can get food by intimidating people.  In either case, stand your ground if it approaches.  Stomp, cuss, yell, and throw things toward the bear without hitting it (if possible).  You don’t want to be a pushover and you don’t want to be friends.  Allowing it to get too close reduces the time for you to react if something goes south.

In the event of a charge or an attack, you aren’t going to have a lot of time to react- maybe two seconds at most.  Bears attacks are either defensive or predatory; remember bears will defend family, food, and space.  Most of the time a charging black bear is a bluffer; it’ll stop short or veer off before connecting.  As a rule, black bears that ‘bluff charge’ first don’t make contact in subsequent charges; an attack ‘with conviction’ will usually occur on the first charge.

In the exceptionally rare case of a bear approaching slowly with head down and eyes locked on you, it might have a craving for people ‘tartare’. Predatory behavior such as this will generally not be preceded by any display of emotion- it is stalking you like prey.  If you are the unlucky one in a million that is charged or attacked, don’t waste time guessing if it’s a bluff or not.  Spray that big bear with your pepper spray!  Trust me, it works.  It’s not fatal for the bear, and you’ve got a much better chance of getting out alive.  If you have foolishly left your spray in your pack and a black bear hits you, fight it with tooth and nail!  Remember, this section is for black bears only, and keep in mind that any bear deterrent, whether pepper spray or firearm, does not guarantee you won’t get hurt, but it’ll probably save your life!

REEVALUATE

If a bear’s response to a direct encounter isn’t violent but hasn’t turned out the way you planned, reevaluate your strategy and try something different.  Perhaps it ran a short distance then decided that you weren’t scary.  Now it won’t leave despite your disapproval.  Think like a bear; escalate your behavior by stomping and breaking sticks, yell at it, and maybe accompany this with a short, two-step ‘rush’ like a bluff charge while clapping your hands.  Alternately, you could also try moving away from the bear.  If it follows you, STOP and face it.  Try to intimidate it- don’t give up and surrender your jelly sandwich!  If you can’t successfully move away, wait it out.  Unless it is predatory, it will likely lose interest and leave.  So much of dealing with bears is psychological, so you’re trying to make it think you’re not worth the risk.

For other conflicts, if removal of the attractant isn’t working reevaluate the situation.  You might want to buy or build a bear-proof trashcan.  They can be expensive but will save a lot of time, energy, and even money in the long-run.  If you live in bear country, ask the local wildlife office, a farmer’s co-op, or forester for recommendations on what would be adequate and approved for your area, such as fencing or protection dogs.  A well-maintained and properly installed ‘hotwire’ is nearly 100% effective.  If you have livestock, recent studies have shown great success with breeds such as Maremmas, Anatolis, and Pyrenees, and the more dogs the better.  Also, look at the area around your farm.  Is there a lot of brush where a predator can remain concealed?  The farther away from the wood’s edge or dense cover, the lesser the chance that a bear will attempt nuisance behavior.  Try removing the underbrush around the forest edge, and keep livestock away from wooded water sources, if possible.

CONCLUSION

Dealing with bears is about using your head, not losing it.  Look into the evolutionary mirror and think about what you would need and how you’d get it if you didn’t have the cushion of society around you.  When you think like a bear, it’ll help you understand why they do what they do, but more importantly how they perceive us and the things we do.  In a perfect world, bears would be off doing bear things and leave people to do all the weird stuff that we do.  But that’s no longer the case.  In a world where two formidable species share space, the best relationship we can have with bears (and in fact other people) is that of mutual respect and trust.  When a bear respects us, it learns that we too need personal space, that our homes and farms aren’t a family diner, and that when pushed we will defend ourselves.  A trusting bear believes that we will also honor those rules and not bring unnecessary harm upon it.  Trust that it bears no ill-will toward you, and it will usually be happy to let you ‘chive on’.

Now here’s the catch: trust without respect (or vice-versa) is a bad thing.  A bear that trusts you but doesn’t respect you won’t care how many rocks or temper tantrums you throw, because it knows you aren’t a threat.  Conversely, a bear that respects you but doesn’t trust you is afraid of you.  Some fear is okay, but too much leads to defensiveness, and a defensive bear is more likely to attack.  The solution?  Trust and Respect: Space, Food, and Family and expect it in return.  We must treat bears as another bear would.  A bear that doesn’t want to share doesn’t leave food unattended and neither should we (garbage included).  Bears want to maintain their personal space and be left alone in their habitat, and we don’t want them pulling on our screen doors and sniffing tents in the middle of the night.  Finally, when push comes to shove, bears want to defend what’s theirs.  Make this clear to bears by not leaving attractants ‘unprotected’.  We follow these same rules in our society, so we just need to do it in a way they understand.

If you live or play in bear country, take a few minutes to think about what you can do to avoid having a conflict.  In some places bears are lucky enough to have human legislation working for them; people get tickets for leaving food and trash out for bears to get.  Most places, though, are not quite there yet.  Agencies all over the country are struggling to manage the delicate relationship we have with bears, when almost all the problems would vanish with a bit of understanding and accountability on our part.  Keep your garbage contained, folks.  Put it out the morning of pickup not the night before, don’t leave it behind the garage, and consider a bear-proof trashcan.  Keep the dogfood in the house, the birdfeeder up high, and the barbecue clean.  Farmers and ranchers, you probably know your property like the back of your hand and know a bear’s route through the property.  Learn to use it to your advantage.  The answer isn’t getting rid of the bear; another bear will take its place.  Despite many beliefs, they aren’t indiscriminate killers, they aren’t always looking for an easy meal, and they aren’t lazy.  It is true that they live in a simpler world, but it is a difficult world where most natural deaths are from starvation.  If they had their way, most bears would live quite peacefully.  And aside from making their place and finding a mate, they often do.

FOR YOUR REFERENCE:

Belant, J. L., S. L. Simek and B. C. West. 2011. Managing Human-Black Bear Conflicts. Human-Wildlife Conflicts Monograph 1:1-77.

Herrero, S.  Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance.  Lyons Press, 2002.

Masterson, L. Living with Bears: a practical guide to living in bear country. PixyJack Press, 2006.

Stringham, S.  Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual.  WildWatch Publications, 2009.

Stringham, S.  When Bears Whisper Do You Listen: Negotiating Close Encounters with Wild Bruins.  WildWatch Publications, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s