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The Making of a Conflict Bear

As human development has increased, so has the number of human-bear conflicts. 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 human-bear conflicts is greatly amplified in these areas where human and bear habitat overlap, particularly when people make anthropogenic foods readily available to bears.

“Bears and garbage go together like junkies and heroin.” – Sid Marty in The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek (pg 29)

In the past, human-bear conflicts were generally viewed as being caused by “problem” bears. But the truth is that most bears that come into conflict with humans are simply looking for food not trouble. The role that individuals and communities played in creating human-bear conflicts has been recognized for some time, but rarely were 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 destroyed each year.

So-called “problem” bears are not born; they are the product of human carelessness and indifference. Although not all bears develop into conflict animals, those that frequent developed areas where garbage and other bear attractants are easily accessible are much more likely to get into trouble.

Bears get into conflict with people when they are trained, or conditioned, to want non-natural food sources such as garbage. Conditioning is a simple learning technique we use to train our pets by giving them positive feedback or a food reward if we want them to repeat a behaviour. Bears, too, can be trained, usually through a critical experience that initiates the chain of behavioural change. Once a bear learns where to get unnatural food from people, it’s just a matter of time before it repeats the behaviour (over and over) that earned it a food reward in the first place.

“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

For example, if a bear is attracted to the smell of garbage in a can it may push the can over, exposing the contents for consumption. Bears can learn from a single experience, which may be all that is necessary for the animal to become conditioned to pushing over garbage cans to obtain food. Whenever the bear encounters garbage cans in the future, with or without food odours, it will likely investigate them. The bear may also be attracted to similar garbage smells 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 begin to develop new behaviour patterns and may continue to seek food at human use sites.

Cubs learn the fundamental skills of survival from their mother. If the mother spends most of her time foraging for food at a landfill or from another human garbage source, this is the behaviour the cubs will learn – and, often, repeat.

Attraction to human food brings bears into more frequent contact with people, resulting in a higher probability of negative human-bear conflicts. Food-conditioned bears may become bold in their attempts to get food from people and cause extensive property damage or, in rare circumstances, injury or death to humans. Habituated bears are those that become comfortable around people and tolerate them at closer distance. When habituation is combined with food conditioning, a potential conflict situation can develop.

“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, 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

Conflict bears often are killed, usually because they are perceived as a threat to human safety and property. 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 cost-effective solution to the problem of human-bear conflicts.

Instead, the prevention and termination of “conflict” bear behaviour relies on human understanding, cooperation and acceptance of bears. The best solution is to secure garbage and other bear attractants so bear can’t get into them. If bears are not rewarded with unnatural food items, they will almost always move on.

Because we cannot eliminate all potential causes of human-bear conflict or interaction, we also need a non-lethal way to deal with these situations. Non-lethal bear management is an effective way to deal with bears when they become a so-called “problem.” Always ask wildlife managers to use non-lethal methods first.