Bears are more inclined to stay away from people, but when it comes to food sources, we often make it irresistible for them to keep their distance. Beehives, ranches, chickens, fruit trees, feed and grain can attract bears. And even in towns or small communities, bird feeders, feeding pets outside, greasy barbeque grills and trash, whether it is in bags or trashcans around our home or open dumpsters, make it hard for a bear to resist these easy meals.
These attractants put bears, people and pets in danger, which can lead to the relocation and sometimes the killing of a local bear.
But there are numerous ways we can coexist with bears, whether you live on a ranch or farm or a housing development in bear country.
Our IWCN forum series focused on coexisting with bears in May. Dr. Seth Wilson of the Blackfoot Challenge and Dr. Heather Johnson of the USGS and formerly with Colorado Parks and Wildlife joined us to share their expertise in coexisting with both grizzlies and black bears.
Seth works with communities in the Blackfoot watershed in Montana. The watershed is vast: 1.5 million acres (about the size of Delaware). It’s an agricultural area made up of seven communities, ranches, and forests with lots of recreational opportunities. Grizzly bears have been recolonizing the area since the 1990s, and with that comes some interesting encounters. Seth says, “Bears are resourceful. They’ll find crops like corn, beehives, you name it, and they can go out and find it.”
Bringing communities together is the key to addressing wildlife issues. “We listened and worked through those issues with the community and we came together to think about solutions in a different way. We explored how we can work on some of our own behaviors and our own practices.” For instance, Seth and the community mapped out bone yards (carcass pits) and calving areas as well as other attractants. The mapping showed the community how they were attracting bears to areas. Once they realized that, they took steps to protect certain areas.
They installed solar powered electric fencing around beehives and calving areas. They also fenced in trash and composting facilities. They even have a program to remove livestock carcasses (a great attractant for bears and other wildlife) from about 120 ranches, which are composted and used for roadside vegetation and non-tabletop crops. This program is supported by the livestock community and has been successful in decreasing the amount of time bears and wolves spend on ranches. Ranchers are even being proactive in fencing off dumpsters and securing feed. Recently, Seth and his team have been working on an electrified pad that will allow ranchers the ability to get in and out of a fenced in area without having to open and close a gate. The electric pad will give a shock to animals, but not vehicles or people with shoes.
Education and awareness are critical to their success. The community uses social media to alert people to bears in the area. And the Blackfoot Challenge provides educational programs through schools to teach students about the vital role bears and other wildlife play on the landscape and teach safety precautions.
“In general, we have seen low levels of conflicts as we work to live alongside grizzly bears here in Montana,” says Seth. “We have worked hard over the years to bring people together in a regular forum and that has been important for rational communication that is so lacking in today’s world. It has been really heartening to have people here believe in science and respond to that. We’ve built a lot of trust in this participatory process… that’s critical for having this long-term community support.”
Agricultural landscapes are not the only places that have issues with bears, it can happen in residential areas as well. Unlike grizzly bears, black bears are widely distributed across the United States and throughout Canada.
“Reducing conflicts is good for bears and it’s good for people. If we can successfully reduce conflicts, we are doing right by the animals and the people,” says Heather.
Heather cautions, “We can expect more conflicts to happen in the future, because our landscapes are becoming more developed and with that comes human food sources. Bears are changing their behavior as they learn to forage on human foods, especially when natural foods are limited. “
If there are good natural food sources, bears don’t really want to come into town. But with changing climate conditions, we are going to see more years where bears struggle to find natural food sources.
To fix the problem of bears in communities, you must lock up your trash. But for a city to bear proof their garbage, it costs money. While Heather was with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, she collaborated on possibly the biggest bear-proofing experiment that anyone has done to determine what was driving bear conflicts and what could be done to address them. The town of Durango was having regular issues with black bears.
They distributed 1000 bear cans to residents in two sections of Durango, Colorado, leaving two other sections as control areas.
During the study, trash conflicts were about 60% lower in treatment areas than control areas and compliance with the city ordinance to lock up trash on non-collection days was about 40% higher.
The city of Durango saw how effective the bear cans were, so the city spent the money on bear cans for all residents and these new ones were self-locking, unlike the previous cans which people had to lock themselves. They found 92% compliance with people who had self-locking cans but with the manual click cans the town saw only 39% compliance. The number of weekly conflicts significantly decreased throughout Durango with the expansion of the program. And when bears tried to get into the cans, they were not successful.
A documentary titled; “Bears of the Durango” was created which tells the story of this great city-wide experiment. Heather says this documentary has been far more effective than all the papers she has published on this topic! “Folks have been using the documentary to spearhead conversations with city officials, council members, and other groups to think about what kind of ordinances should be in place and what infrastructure changes need to happen to reduce conflicts.”
If your community needs to address bear conflicts, watch the “Bears of the Durango” for an even deeper understanding of the efforts there and visit the Blackfoot Challenge website. You can also visit our resource library to read studies, papers and other materials on coexistence methods. Click here to view a recording of the Coexisting with Bears Forum.
Thank you to the Foundation for Sustainability and Innovation for their support of this forum.