The role of people and bears in negative interactions

As human development increases, so will the number of interactions people have with bears. Often, the areas where people settle, such as in lush valley bottoms or along salmon spawning streams, are prime bear habitat – a healthy environment for people is a healthy environment for bears. The potential for encounters with bears is greatly amplified in these areas where human and wildlife habitat overlap, particularly when people make their garbage and other foods readily available to wild animals.

Most bears that come into human-use areas are simply looking for food or safety, not trouble. The role that people and communities play in creating negative interactions has been recognized for some time, but rarely are residents held accountable for removing the source of the problem. As a result, wildlife agencies receive thousands of complaints annually and hundreds of bears are killed unnecessarily each year as a result of misunderstanding of the behaviour and needs of bears.

Bears are highly intelligent animals. Like us, they are quick learners. If they find an easy, high calorie food source in someone’s yard, they may choose to return for more.

Bears can learn from a single experience. For example, if a bear is attracted to the smell of food in a garbage can, they may push the can over, exposing the contents for consumption. This may be all that is necessary for the animal to understand that pushing over garbage cans yields a food reward. It’s not unlike the process we use to train our dogs. We ask our dog to sit, and when the dog sits, they get a cookie, then the dog will learn to sit to get the food reward. It actually works the same way for all animals. So, whenever the bear encounters garbage cans in the future, with or without food odours, they will likely investigate them. The bear may also be attracted to similar food smells in garbage cans in other places, such as on a porch or even in a garage. Regardless of the type of attractant, once bears have been successful in obtaining human foods, they may begin to develop new behaviour patterns and continue to seek food at human-use sites. Foraging on anthropogenic foods is always more of an issue during poor natural food years; i.e. berry/nut crop or salmon run failures.

So-called ‘problem’ bears are not born ‘problem’ animals, they are created by the carelessness of people and the availability of anthropogenic attractants; ‘problem’ bears are the result of a management problem of people and therefore effective, proactive management requires changing those human behaviours. – Dr. Lana Ciarnello in Prince George Conflict Management Plan

Though born with an innate understanding of critically important survival skills, cubs also learn many life skills from their mother. If the mother spends most of her time foraging for food at a landfill or from another human garbage source, cubs will discover how to easily get high caloric foods. This is not to say that they are destined to choose this foraging strategy when they are on their own (some do and some don’t), but it is not beneficial learning.

Bears may enter peopled areas for many other reasons as well, often for safety; i.e. a mother with cubs or a young adolescent bear may use residential areas to stay away from more dominant bears that are using prime bear habitats. They may also just be passing through. However, attraction to human food often brings bears into more frequent contact with people, resulting in a higher probability of negative human-bear interactions. After building confidence with a successful urban feeding strategy, bears may become bold in their attempts to access food from people and cause extensive property damage or, in extremely rare circumstances, people and their pets can be injured when they come into close contact with wild animals.

A nervous homeowner discovered a bear trying to raise a kitchen window that was cracked open a few inches, and threw some bread out of another window to divert its attention. The bear stopped and ate the bread, then started pushing on the window from where it had come. If the woman could have delivered a good shot of bear spray (i.e. providing a negative response/punishment), the bear might have left for good. Now the bear knows her house as the ‘push on the window, get instant bread house’. – John Koehler, District Wildlife Manager, Bolder, CO as quoted in Living with Bears, by Linda Masterson. Alternatively, a portable electric fence or unwelcome mat could be installed to prevent further incidents.

Bears that have negative interactions with people are often killed, usually because they are “mis-perceived” as a threat to human safety and property by archaic wildlife management polices and uniformed officers. Others are moved somewhere else, but they usually return to the location of the original conflict or get into trouble in their new home. Neither killing bears nor relocating them is a reasonable solution to the problems associated with bears using peopled areas.

Instead, the prevention and termination of “unwelcome” bear behaviour relies on human understanding, cooperation and acceptance of bears. The best solution is to learn about bears to gain a better understanding of their true nature, then keep communities less enticing to bears through proper attractant management. Secure garbage and other bear attractants so bears can’t get into them. If bears are not rewarded with unnatural food items, they will almost always move on.

Unfortunately, we cannot eliminate all potential causes of  people-bear interactions, no matter how diligent we are… where there are people, there will likely be some accessible food (even if it’s a fruit tree or dandelions on the lawn). Combined with the fact that bears will always enter communities and peopled areas for a variety of other reasons, like safety for example, we also need a non-lethal way to deal with these situations. Non-lethal bear managementis an effective way to deal with bears that are considered unwelcome. Always ask wildlife managers to use non-lethal methods first. Or try deterring bears from your home using these methods.

Mike McIntosh has been working with bears for the past 20 years. He is the founder of Bear With Us Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Centre for Bears that rehabilitates orphaned and injured bears and returns them to the wild. He will trap and relocate bears as well.

He says normally if people have an unwelcome bear on their property, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources will determine what attracted the bear, remove the attractant, and the bear moves on. McIntosh handles unwelcome bears in the same way. He says only in about one out of 10 conflict situations does the Ministry set a live trap to capture and relocate the bear. McIntosh says when a bear is moved at least 60 km from the area of conflict, it does act as a deterrent. “The bear may come back to the area, but they may not come back to the area of conflict, that person’s house,” he said. “That’s what the intent is.” He says bears come back most often if they are not moved very far.