A Grizzly Situation: Saving Bears by Mitigating Conflict
Original Paper: Proctor, M.F., W.F. Kasworm, K.M. Annis, A.G. MacHutchon, J.E. Teisberg, T.G. Radandt, and C. Servheen. 2018. “Conservation of threatened Canada-USA trans-border grizzly bears linked to comprehensive conflict reduction.” Human–Wildlife Interactions 12(3): 6. https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1511&context=hwi
Featured Image Source: Be Bear Aware. Credit: Province of British Columbia. Flickr
Many people become fearful at the mention of “bear country” – this phrase is a deterrent for many who seek to go camping or hiking in those areas. But is the risk of being hurt by a bear, or even seeing a bear, on your trip really that high? The answer is no: many campers and hikers don’t even know they have passed close to a bear during their time outdoors because bears largely try to avoid humans.
Even when bears do come close to people, it’s usually for very specific reasons. Bears are attracted to human food and garbage, so if they can easily obtain either of these and they know typically where this food will be (for ex. in campgrounds), they will seek these resources out. Bears who are hungry due to a lack of food sources or who do not have enough space to roam through (i.e. habitat) may also come close to humans, potentially eating livestock or crops or attacking people. In these instances, the bears are conflicting with humans over their vital resources – food and habitat – and humans often retaliate.
What are human-wildlife conflicts?
Human-wildlife conflicts are a prominent conservation issue and are prevalent around the world, most often in rural areas where humans and wildlife cohabitate. In these areas, wildlife usually conflict with humans over access to food and space. When wildlife venture near humans because they can no longer find enough food in the wild, these interactions can affect people. In these instances, wildlife often resort to killing cattle or raiding farms, which harms the farmers’ livelihoods, and may cause them to retaliate. These conflicts can also occur because wildlife simply do not have enough habitat, or space to live, and so they wander onto properties or into areas where humans do not want them. For instance, a stampede of elephants may go through a farm and unintentionally damage crops. As a result, the farmers will end up with a net deficit in income from those damaged crops that year. This may cause the farmers to kill any elephants they see nearby as a prevention measure since they cannot afford to lose any more crops. Besides taking away habitat from wildlife, human settlements and cities also cause fragmented landscapes, or areas of wildlife habitat that are not connected to each other. As a result of this increasing urbanization, populations of wildlife that may have originally spanned a larger area end up instead residing on smaller patches of land. As humans build cities, it becomes more difficult for wildlife to travel between these patches, leading to a decrease in habitat connectivity. This can create conflict with humans, among other problems.
A Program to Mitigate This Conflict
A few years ago, scientists identified three threatened grizzly bear populations on the USA-Canada border. The scientists wanted to come up with a way to save these bears, and they knew that these populations had a decades-long history of conflict with humans. Armed with this knowledge, the researchers began a study to learn more about how this conflict affected bear populations and what could ultimately be done to mitigate the conflict. The overall goal of this study was to implement an effective program to decrease human-bear conflict and to increase the habitat connectivity between bear populations.
Researchers first wanted to track bear movement in order to understand where bears were and why human conflict was occurring, as well as to track bear mortality events. Scientists fitted bears with GPS tracking devices to learn about bear movement data and whether bears were going into or near private land. The researchers identified specific “fractures” in the connectivity of the bear populations, or places that connect human settlements but fragment bear habitat, and they monitored patterns of bear mortality. Together, these data were used to determine the best areas for bears to live and travel between in the future with limited human conflict.
In addition to mapping, researchers wanted to do as much as possible to prevent future human-bear conflict, so they came up with a non-lethal program for managing the conflict. This included ensuring public and property safety as a top priority and educating the public about bears. To dissuade bears from going close to human settlements, the bears were conditioned to associate this closeness with discomfort. The program also focused on reducing bear “attractants,” or items such as garbage, fruit trees, and livestock, around human-dominated areas. Researchers put up cost-share electric fencing on properties that had experienced bear conflict and gave out subsidized bear-resistant garbage bins to deter bears. They also wanted to protect bear habitat in backcountry areas where bears might have important food sources, so they set up motorized patrols in several locations. The hope was that then these areas could sustain more bears, specifically females with cubs, which would ultimately increase the threatened bear population.
What Did Researchers Find?
Humans had killed many of these bears due to conflict over the years, and so it was no surprise that people were the main source responsible for suppression of the bear populations. In areas closer to humans, bears tended to be killed because they were attracted to food in the area. In more backcountry areas, bears were killed predominantly through poaching, self-defense, or mistaken identity. The biggest areas for risks to bears were areas closer to roads or at low elevations, riparian habitats (the area between the woods and the river), and open areas. Fragmentation of the bear’s habitat, by way of cities, roads, and other human-made obstacles, also contributed to their decrease in population since they were unable to move successfully between habitat patches.
Though still in its early stages, the program is already showing signs of success. After hiring a bear conflict specialist and implementing the program, bear mortalities decreased at each site. Most of the bears that were tracked were staying out of conflict with humans 2-3 years later, and more than 52,000 hectares of land across the fracture areas were set aside for bear habitat.
What Will the Future Hold for These Grizzlies?
With the program’s overall success in keeping more bears alive, hopefully the bear population will continue to stabilize and will increase in coming years. Researchers plan to continue implementing this program in this area to further minimize bear conflicts in the future, and the see these methods being used to benefit other threatened populations of bears around the world.
You might be asking what you can do to help these bear populations and others like them. While you might not have the technology or the bravery to collar and track bears (this is only recommended for trained wildlife scientists), you can still help prevent human-bear conflict. If you own a farm or know people who do, look into whether your local wildlife agencies have implemented wildlife conflict mitigation programs. Encourage anyone who has conflict with wildlife to contact these agencies – they often have mitigation incentives in place for landowners, and they are actively looking for people to provide data on wildlife conflicts. There are many scientists around the world working to decrease this conflict by creating spaces where both humans and wildlife can coexist.
Don’t let bears deter you from exploring the outdoors! Though caution is still important: When camping in bear country, remember to put your food in a secure bear box, in a vehicle, or suspended in a tree – basically anywhere away from where you’re staying. A hungry bear will do almost anything for food. If you hear of a bear sighting or see a bear nearby, try to steer clear of it. The bear probably doesn’t want to be any closer to you than it is already. And know where you are – understand that if you are out hiking, you are cohabitating that space with the wildlife around you. Respect their space, and they will respect yours.
U.S. National Park Service. “Staying safe around bears.” Bears in National Parks, 2019, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/bears/safety.htm