Living with bears | Animal Welfare Institute


Historically, grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) inhabited most of the western contiguous United States, while black bears (American Ursus) were common in forested areas of the country. However, the combination of westward expansion by European settlers and state and federal predator extermination campaigns reduced the populations of both species. Today, about 2,000 grizzly bears occupy just 6% of their historic range in the contiguous states, while about 300,000 black bears occupy only 50% of theirs. Grizzly bears roam parts of the northern Rocky Mountains, while black bears inhabit large swathes of the west, western Great Lakes region, and Appalachia.

Approximate current range of black bears (green) and grizzly bears (blue) in the contiguous United States, based on maps produced by the US Geological Survey and the US Fish and Wildlife Service

Black bears and grizzly bears have developed remarkable physiological characteristics. They are highly intelligent and inquisitive – they are problem solvers and can teach learned behaviors to their young. They also have incredibly strong noses and can pick up strong smells from miles away. Additionally, bears are omnivores and can feed on a wide variety of foods including grasses, leaves, flowers, berries, nuts, seeds, insects, carrion, fish, rodents and, occasionally, ungulates such as moose, elk and deer. (usually very young or infirm). Indeed, one study found that grizzly bears in the region surrounding Yellowstone National Park eat at least 266 different plant and animal species.

These abilities serve bears well in the wild as they must find and consume enough food and accumulate enough body fat to sustain them in their winter dens for up to six months. In fact, in late summer and fall, bears will spend up to 20 hours a day locating and ingesting huge numbers of calories – up to 20,000 a day – from all sources. they can find.

However, these same traits can sometimes get bears in trouble with humans. The intelligence, curiosity, powerful nose, food flexibility and voracious appetites of bears mean that they can easily discover and investigate potential sources of calories in or near human habitations, including campsites. , farms and urban areas. And once bears learn to associate these places with food rewards, they are more likely to return to them, enter into repeated conflicts, become habituated to people (and therefore unfit to be moved), and be killed as a result.

Additionally, as the weather gets colder and winter approaches, bears’ urgent need to focus their attention on foraging means they may be more easily startled by unsuspecting humans and act defensively. while charging. Of course, bear attacks are extremely rare. Yellowstone National Park, for example, calculates the chance of being injured by a grizzly bear to be about 1 in 2.7 million visits. Similarly, over more than a century (between 1900 and 2009), there have been fewer than two fatal black bear attacks per decade in the United States. But when humans scare bears or inadvertently lure them too close, people and bears can be injured or killed.

Avoid conflicts with bears

Grizzly bears and black bears generally avoid humans and human communities. However, in many areas, expanding human development is increasingly encroaching on bear habitat, while in some places recovering bear populations are reclaiming their traditional territories, bringing more bears into contact. with humans. In areas where humans and bears overlap, thousands of conflicts occur each year and hundreds of bears are killed as a result. These deaths are all the more tragic because most human-bear encounters are preventable.

Fortunately, a wide variety of non-lethal tools and strategies can be used to deter bears from coming into conflict with humans and keep people, property and bears safe. To prevent property damage and injury to humans and bears, consider the following tips, techniques, and guidelines for minimizing negative human-bear encounters.

Bears in the backcountry

Every year, millions of people enjoy hiking, mountain biking, hunting, fishing and camping on public lands inhabited by bears. All of these activities risk bringing humans and bears closer together. To avoid conflicts, follow these best practices:

  • When recreating in bear country, travel in groups of three or more and talk or make noise to alert bears to your presence.
  • Pack bear spray and know how to use it.
  • Do not leave packages or bags containing food unattended.
  • When camping, store food, garbage, and other potential bear attractants (even toothpaste!) away from tents—in vehicles, bear proof food storage boxes or racksor bear proof containersor suspended from bear poles or tree branches at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from the trunk.
bear cans - photo by Matt Zimmerman
photo by Matt Zimmerman

Bears and agriculture

Bears sometimes feed on cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens and other unprotected animals. They may also feed on crops such as corn and oats, as well as honey, bees, and grubs in commercial hives. This can result in the injury or death of vulnerable domestic animals, economic losses for farmers and ranchers, and the fatal disposal of bears. Fortunately, there are many ways to protect agricultural resources from bears:

  • Electrical fence can be installed around livestock pastures, cultivated fields and apiaries. When powered at 7,000 volts or more, this tool is a very effective bear deterrent.
  • The sites where ranchers pile the carcasses of dead cattle – known as bone piles or bone pens – are major attractants, and can bring bears and other predators close to live cattle or sheep, increasing the risk of depredation. Removing carcasses reduces the likelihood of conflict.
  • Ranchers or riders on horseback can monitor groups of cattle and sheep, keep herds together to ensure greater security in numbers, remove sick animals, identify carcasses for removal, add human presence as a deterrent against predators and identifying the signs and presence of carnivores—all of which can help prevent depredation. Motion Activated scaring devices that emit loud sounds or bright lights when triggered can be installed near livestock pastures to deter bears and other predators. Scaring devices work best when moved regularly and different types are used, to avoid habituation.

Bear in town

Urban areas provide a host of attractants that can attract bears to parks, streets, alleys and backyards. They include garbage, bird feeders, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, berry bushes, backyard chickens, dog food, barbecue grills and compost heaps. Best practices for avoiding conflicts are as follows:

  • Using a bear proof trash canand only drop it off on the day of waste collection
  • Surround attractants such as gardens, compost piles and fruit trees with electrical fenceand harvest or remove ripe berries, vegetables and fruits
  • Thoroughly clean barbecue grates after each use and store in a garage, shed or other secure structure
  • Remove bird feeders when bears are active; even if a feeder is empty or inaccessible, bears may still be attracted to the smell. Additionally, you can help reduce human-bear conflict in your community by working with local authorities or wildlife managers to distribute trash resources or enact ordinances designed to keep people and bears safe. Websites created by organizations such as Get Bear Smart Society, BearWiseand the Grizzly Bear Interagency Committee offer helpful tips and resources for coexisting with bears in urban and rural settings.
electrical fence
photo by rlesyk

Plus, you can read more about the steps communities in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Colorado have taken to live with bears — and the actions AWI recommends — in a letter we have. sent to the municipal authorities of Bozeman, Montana.

Bears are generally shy and reclusive creatures who want nothing to do with humans. However, their critical need and extraordinary ability to find food can draw them into conflict with humans in the woods, around the farm, and at home. With a little forethought, creativity, and a basic understanding of bear behavior, we can prevent the majority of human-bear collisions, keep bears and people safe, and ensure bears stay and thrive in the environment. nature.


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