Ecotourism: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

  1. tourism directed toward exotic, often threatened, natural environments, especially to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife.

What IS Ecotourism?

Most of us are familiar with the concept of ‘ecotourism’, and since you’re reading this you have probably even participated in an activity or stayed at a place that advertises itself as such.  You might have chosen it based on that point alone, right?  In fact, ecotourism can be good for more than a few reasons, not the least of which is the awareness and (hopefully) conservation of threatened habitats and species.  The definition above even uses the word ‘conservation’, and in the context of the definition implies that wildlife and habitats should benefit from those activities.  But while the idea behind ecotourism is a good one, the results are not always good for wildlife and ecosystems.  Those of us that participate, either as operators or guests, are likely aware of at least some of the conservation issues surrounding the resource we are visiting, but many users are not familiar with the costs of ecotourism itself.  The following is a brief overview of some of the best, and worst, of the industry, and I hope that after reading you will be a more educated and aware visitor to the world’s most special places.

As much as we’d like to believe that sharing the world’s treasures can’t be a bad thing, the reality is that wherever people go there is an impact.  For instance, we’ve all heard of “The Tragedy of the Commons”.  Applying that concept to ecotourism we find that without some limit to our visitation, usage, and means of restoration, the resource becomes degraded.  We can see this manifested as road expansion, deforestation, waste from litter or motor vehicles, noise pollution, decreased animal survivorship, and loss of biodiversity…just to name a few.  For many visitors, too, there comes a point in which the number of visitors detracts from the experience of others.

Let’s start with a simple example; for instance, whale-watching.  Whale watching is a fascinating activity that educates people about the behavior, intelligence, and social network of whales and some of the threats they face during their lives in the sea.  Presumably this awareness increases donations to conservation agencies and may even increase pressure on governments to tighten up regulations.  This kind of publicity also influences popular science and encourages research through available grant funding.  But as the activity gains popularity, these issues unfold:

-more boats clutter the waters, creating physical hazards,

-noise pollution affects whales’ communication abilities,

-whales can be displaced from food, and food sources can be displaced, and

-stress can affect parenting and feeding behaviors.

Taken as a whole, these pressures can affect how many whales survive.  Eager guests also want the best photographs, which puts pressure on captains and crews to get closer and maneuver so that other boats aren’t in the background of priceless photographs.  If each boat pushes the limits a little more, this exponentially increases the likelihood of those negative consequences.  And of course, we haven’t even mentioned pollution in the form of fossil fuel consumption, which ultimately affects the health and productivity of the ocean ecosystems overall.


Another problem with ecotourism is that the word itself has become a form of ‘greenwashing’; this is simply the claim that something is what it actually isn’t in order to sell more experiences.  Most visitors care to some degree about animals, so it makes sense that operators try to convince them that they (the company) are doing the ‘right things’ when it comes to protecting resources.  These operators rely on the naiveté of their guests or clever marketing strategies to promote careless practices as safe ones.  Often it is easy to see the negative consequences that bring immediate effects, such as scaring a herd of buffalo toward a pride of lions, however it is often the long-term consequences, such as habitat degradation, that visitors and operators alike overlook.  In order to combat this, many certification boards have popped up that allow eco-tours and lodges to voluntarily jump through a series of hoops in order to earn a stamp of approval.  Restoration programs, operator education and training, and sustainability agreements are all examples of initiatives that help qualify organizations.  Often, these certification programs have been designed in an attempt to develop some sort of standard and provide reliable information to consumers.  Unfortunately, there is no universal regulatory board to define best practices, and even fewer still to provide the boots-on-the-ground to enforce standards.  This is not to say that some stewardship or sustainability certificates or councils are not meaningful or reputable…simply that we should be aware that some of them are bogus, and perhaps a little more research can reveal the truth.

So how will you know if an activity or location is conscientious and gives back to the resource?  With the certifying council, look for both a domestic and international presence.  International oversight without local buy-in and support is meaningless, and often domestic-only is more subject to corruption.  Also, check the board of directors or contributors of both the certifying agency and the operator.  Are there qualified people listed?  Is there research being conducted?  Quite often reputable organizations will staff research biologists, attorneys, etc, and they might be listed on an ‘About Us’ page or directory.  Is the council also a tour provider?  Good certifying agencies probably will not also provide services…an obvious conflict of interest.  For operators, look for actual conservation projects, evidence of community involvement, and statements about minimizing impacts on the website of operators.  If they aren’t listed, don’t be afraid to write and ask before you give them your money!!

Money, money, money…

Speaking of money…One of the biggest problems with many ecotours is that little, if any, of the money garnered for services in exploitation of natural resources and wildlife actually makes its way back to those resources.  Even in National Parks within the United States, only a small portion of the entrance fee goes to the park.  Most of that is absorbed by park personnel salaries, vehicle maintenance, and services, etc.  In the case of the most visited parks, portions of fees help sustain lesser-known parks that cannot sustain themselves.

Now, the care of our National Parks and indeed those around the world is somewhat of a political and philosophical discussion.  In fact, it has been in the news recently as the current U.S. administration hikes up the rates for visitation in 17 of the most visited parks.  It also created quite a stir on social media.  So, should these costs be passed on to the consumer, or should the government quit pirating tax funds from the Park system?  My answer is BOTH- and more!

  1. Our federal government must absolutely stop stripping away funding for the parks. But a certain amount of this is in the hands of the voters! We need to put people in office that care about the benefits of nature parks, to include not only ecological benefits, but also human health and wellbeing.
  2. We as citizens SHOULD be willing to pay a little more to help protect our parks- provided that the funds aren’t stripped away by the government. If you think paying $70 per car-full of people is expensive for a full day at a National Park, try taking your family of four to a 2-hour movie and see how much you spend. Priorities, people.
  3. Any commercial user should be required to pay more. For better or worse, commercial operators make money exploiting natural resources. I know, because I’m one of them.  Tourists’ dollars go directly from the guests to the pockets of operators, while virtually none finds its way into mitigating the impacts of tourism aforementioned.  To one degree or another around the world, tour operators use roads, create noise and waste, eventually degrade ecosystems, and impact wildlife.  They ultimately aid in the growth of popularity both through advertising and word-of-mouth by their guests.  This attention increases popularity and the impact grows.  Operators become money-rich while the resource becomes ecologically poorer.  On the other hand, other activities involving wildlife and ecosystems, such as hunting, support conservation through the sale of licenses and tags.  Each hunter is required to purchase a license and in some cases a tag or stamp.  Not only does this help manage the hunted species, it also goes into habitat development, conservation, and management of endangered or threatened species.  Because ecotourism exploits the environment in its own way, not simply through harvest, I think eco-users participating in commercial tours should pay a usage tax or purchase a stamp.  That money would go directly into conservation.  In my line of work, this would translate to a ‘viewing stamp’, such that bear viewers would pay a little extra per person (the equivalent of a hunting stamp) to acquire a permit for the duration of their stay.  That money would then be used to monitor and enhance bear habitat, protection, and research the viewing impact on bears.
  4. International guests should pay more than domestic visitors. The international crowd of visitors to U.S. National Parks is enormous, and with enormous visitation comes enormous impacts. Why should U.S. citizens shoulder that financial burden?  I don’t want to exclude international guests, and I definitely want them to feel welcome here, but I do feel like the parks are in the trust of the American people and any impact from non-U.S. citizens should be covered by the guest.  I would personally be happy to pay more than a citizen while visiting another country’s Parks.  In fact, I’m quite certain that this exists in other countries around the world.  This definitely exists in other industries, whereas ‘members’ pay less than ‘guests’.  This is easily transferrable to the U.S. park system.

Regulation and Management

This international perspective is a great segue into the next part of this blog.  Around the world we see ecotourism destinations managed in all sorts of ways.  Some are managed exclusively by the government, others are community-based, some are privately-owned reserves, and others still are managed jointly by local and federal governments, non-governmental organizations, and international committees.  In general, the best system to-date is that of the privately managed reserve working with specialized experts.  Managed much like a business, these folks protect their reserve and put money back into it because it is their life’s work.  They love it, they live off it, and they want to pass it on to their children and share it with others.  Private reserve owners use funds raised by tourism, grants, and government incentives to build and sustain the resource.  Simply put: they need it and it needs them.  On the other side of the spectrum, tour operators that use public lands (like National Parks) for commercial use do not own the land and are not responsible for its upkeep and protection.  Upkeep falls on the public, so operators are not directly invested.  Many (but not all!) only have eyes for the personal gain.  The money that they receive for their services goes into their pocket to grow their business and nothing more…minus perhaps the usage fees and annual permits that we discussed previously.

The way a reserve or location is managed, and by whom, is indeed a very important piece of the puzzle.  Great success has been achieved through interagency and interdisciplinary cooperation.  This means involving and employing local people and governments, the federal government, and special interest groups or research agencies.  The latter two serve as advocates and provide specialized training and consultation.  Local buy-in for any reserve is absolutely essential for sustainability, and believe it or not some of the best examples come out of Africa.  There, poaching and human/wildlife conflict has resulted in the serious decline of many species.  Through community involvement and some dedicated groups, however, some places have made it more profitable for locals to engage in ecotourism rather than poaching.

‘Good’ Ecotourism

While claims of ecotourism can be an outright lie, it certainly isn’t always so.  Some companies and locations make genuine efforts to reduce their ‘footprint’ in areas that they use, minimize the stress on wildlife, and put money back into the resource.  Most places and activities fall somewhere on a continuum between good and terrible.  In a perfect world, we’d like to have no negative effects, but the reality is that we need some form of balance…the trade-off.

So what is ‘good’ ecotourism?  For starters, good ecotourism puts money back into the hands of those that are prepared to protect and restore the resource.  Projects may be very simple, from storm-water management and trail monitoring to more expensive and complex projects such as habitat restoration and population research.  Responsible operators also pay attention to the effect their actions, services, or activities have on the environment.  Once these effects have been identified, they look for ways to minimize that impact without sacrificing guest satisfaction- this is the ‘trade-off’.  With wildlife viewing, it is highly beneficial to understand stress behavior and individual animals’ personalities and tolerances.  Understanding these things helps us know when to leave, and if we are causing or worsening a stressful situation.  In my line of work, a good bear guide knows that his/her group can provide a safe haven for mothers with cubs but in the next moment frighten them with noises or sudden movements.  Responsible guides know both the bears they view and the group they lead.  Some groups may be disruptive, pushy, or inattentive and require stricter group management or greater distances between the group and the bears.  Foot traffic and motor vehicle use is also a common issue in environmental degradation.  Simple self-regulation techniques such staying on designated paths and giving high-traffic areas a ‘break’ to heal can dramatically increase the sustainability of an area and the activities it supports.

Case Example:  Bear-Viewing

Lake Clark National Park is a safe, healthy place for bears and good candidate for sustainable ecotourism. There are no roads, so visitor traffic may only arrive by boat or airplane and is thus relatively self-limiting.  The area supports one of the largest concentrations of brown bears in the world.  In the confines of the park there is no hunting, and all activities are regulated in some way, shape or form.  ATV use, for example, is limited to designated trails.  Air traffic has minimum cruising height requirements and landing is only permitted on private inholdings or on the beach, which is controlled by the state of Alaska.  Periodical closings of sensitive habitats occur as needed and these are decided by an onsite park ranger.  Some of the highest-profile issues could include: crowding or harassment of wildlife, overharvest of salmon, habitat degradation, noise pollution, and increasing visitor use.  Operators within the Silver Salmon Creek area fall into two general categories: overnight and day users.  Overnight users almost always stay at one of two lodges on private inholdings.  The owners have a vested interest in the health of the area and tend to be very conscientious and protective.  However they also have a greater per-operator presence.  Day users arrive by aircraft with a pilot-guide and stay from 30 minutes up to about 8 hours.  Comparatively speaking, they have no stake in the wellbeing of the location, and if there are few bears can simply fly to another location.  They might make multiple trips in a day.  Obviously, both opportunities have their pluses and minuses.

With all that said, when visiting the park you must choose your operator for bear-viewing.  There are definitely some considerations ahead of time and some things to watch for during your experience.  At most viewing locations, it is often the same bear or bears that are being viewed throughout a given season.  In time, many bears become quite tolerant of humans and the ways/means of bear-viewing.  But, it is important to know that not all bears are the same; they each respond in different ways and are also subject to other variables that may change how they react to you.  Examples of these variables include other bears (a big factor) and wind (affects ability to hear and smell).  Just the smell of a male bear in an area can put mothers with cubs on edge.  The wind blows smells around and limits hearing ability, therefore a bear is less able to identify a problem and the direction it is coming from.

In almost all cases, what a bear fears most is other bears.  And while many viewable bears are tolerant of people they still generally want to be left alone.  With these things in mind, a good guide will know not to let his/her group spread out to form a barrier if the bear is ready to leave or needs to escape a threat.  In general, inhibiting a bear’s path of travel is poor practice anyway and should be avoided.  Your guide should probably be able to read the path of travel or foraging and act accordingly, or move your group if it looks like the bear wants to move in your direction.  Spreading out is also very intimidating to bears, so groups should be tight together to be minimally invasive.  Experienced guides will also be able to tell when a bear has had enough.  It’s good practice that if a bear moves away intentionally (as opposed to moving a short distance to forage) it should not be followed.

Another important consideration is how we approach a bear.  If you’re approaching on foot, approaching indirectly and single-file is less intimidating than a direct approach as a ‘wall’ of people.  We know this from watching bear behavior, whereas the type of approach signals the intention of the approacher.  We also know that motor vehicles can be invasive to bears and other wildlife, but in particular helicopters seem to be especially scary.  Any time a vehicle is used, animals should never be pursued or ‘hovered-over’.  In other words, vehicles should only be used to find, not follow.  Vehicle-based viewing guides should have the experience to know when to stop and turn off their engine based on the bear, its behavior, or the situation.  We use ATVs where I work to help us cover a lot of ground in search of bears.  When we find them, we stop short and walk the rest of the way and always stay on designated routes that bears know.  Sometimes a bear will see and hear the ATV and I can tell it’s unsure and maybe a little nervous.  At that time, I will turn off the ATV, walk a short distance away from it, and throw up a little wave.  Not to say ‘hi’, of course…I have then identified myself as human and not another bear, and more times than not the nervousness falls away, the bear resumes its activity, and I can resume travel.  Why this works I’m not exactly sure.  Bears see pretty well, but from a distance the ATV is shaped somewhat like a bear.  The act of getting off the ATV may help the bear determine that it is not a threat.

Now up to this point we’ve only talked about our direct impact on bears, but there are many other effects of our actions.  If we aren’t careful we can be a big distraction that affects a bear’s fishing success.  We can also damage ecosystems through vehicle and foot traffic.  In coastal Alaska we have salt marshes, and some of the plants that live there are susceptible to breakage underfoot.  Enough people each walking their own path can have a serious impact.  Not only do bears and other animals forage on these plants, but ground-nesting birds also use those areas to raise their families.  As visitor use increases, so do these deleterious effects.  With growing numbers of people also come trash, airplane noise, and guides with varying levels of experience, training, and respect.  There is no required training or experience to be a guide, so the result is often the pilot/guide, some of which have little experience or real knowledge of bears and their behavior.  Not only is this a potential safety hazard, but less-experienced guides tend to also have less respect.  Most of these operators have little invested in the resource and some have little more than money in mind.  They have an airplane, thus they have mobility, and therefore have little reason to protect a given location in favor of simply going elsewhere when the resource becomes degraded.  Keep in mind that this is a broad generalization.  There are many fantastic guides, pilots, and pilot/guides that have been doing this for decades, that care very deeply, and that I would trust with my life!!

As I wrap this up I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you with information.  This is really just a broad overview; I couldn’t possibly tell you everything that you might need to know.  But, I hope you have found some of this information useful and at least have a better idea how to choose an adventure and perhaps some questions to ask.  If you take away nothing else, don’t be ashamed or afraid to make sure your money goes to the most deserving candidate with the right values in mind!  There’s almost always a choice- and I hope you’ll choose wisely!


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 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:


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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For further reading, I hope you’ll enjoy a few of my observations, opinions, and orations as they emerge.  Some of the things I will address are major issues in resource management, ecotourism, and research.  Some of the writings might also be field observations and questions/theories about behaviors and experiences.  Finally, I hope to include either original, formal writings and articles or those of my peers, particularly those that help us deal with wildlife and conflicts in our everyday lives.  Please feel free  to comment or share this site!