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Bears and people and garbage, oh my!

Written by Stacy Lischka is a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology.

Imagine you are hiking along a trail, high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, taking in the scenery, breathing the fresh air, and hoping you’ll see some wildlife to round out your adventure. It’s a lovely fall day.  The sun is shining and the service berries are abundant.  You stop to snack on a few berries, and as you look up from foraging, you see a large, black animal, also eating its fill of berries some distance away. You squint, mind racing, trying to figure out what it is that you see. Could it be a bear?

Now, imagine you are taking your dog for a walk down the sidewalk in your neighborhood. Your 5-year old is riding his bike along next to you. Its 5 pm, and the late fall, so its nearly dark. You’re busy trying to keep your son from riding his bike into the street, and hardly notice that many of your neighbors have their garbage cans out on the curb, waiting for tomorrow’s garbage pickup. You turn a corner and walk nearly into a large, black animal eating its fill out of a tipped over garbage can in your neighbor’s driveway. The animal looks up, hears you yell “Oh my god!” and runs off down the street to the nearby natural area. Could that have been a bear?

These two different experiences likely made you feel entirely different things. In the first scenario, you might have felt excitement about seeing a bear in its natural habitat, filling up on natural foods to prepare for hibernation. You probably felt that this interaction was natural, no cause for alarm, and that the bear was behaving in a way consistent with its evolutionary needs. You would probably walk away from this interaction feeling pretty excited that it had happened and ready to brag about it to all of your friends.

The second scenario might have caused you to feel very differently. You might have felt scared by the situation, especially for the safety of your son. You might also have been concerned for the health of the bear, knowing that garbage is not a natural food for bears.  You would probably walk away from this situation feeling like there was a problem and maybe planning to call your local wildlife office to report the incident.

Both of these scenarios are common in Colorado and in other states with black bears. Unfortunately, examples like the second scenario have increased alarmingly within the last 10 years.  In fact, wildlife managers have reported increases in conflicts between people and black bears in 30 of the 41 states that have bear populations.  In Colorado, the total number of human-black bear conflicts reported to Colorado Parks and Wildlife has more than tripled in the past 15 years.  Because of this, people like me are spending lots of time and effort to figure out why conflicts occur. Are bear populations increasing, and do more bears on the landscape mean more conflicts with people?  Are bears preferentially seeking out human foods over natural foods?  Does seeking out human foods hurt or help individual bears and bear populations? What are the best approaches to discourage bears from seeking out human foods?  How will changing climate and drought change natural food availability for bears? Exploring the answers to these and many more questions will help us understand how to reduce conflicts between people and black bears, and maintain healthy black bear populations across the U.S. and Canada.

The perfect storm

Researchers and biologists don’t completely understand what is causing the increase in conflicts between people and black bears, but we know human food is a potential culprit. We know that people and bears prefer to live in the same types of areas, especially areas along rivers and in forested areas with lots of natural foods. In LaPlata County, one of the areas with the best quality bear habitat in Colorado, human development has increased by more than 600% since 1970. This means that people are much more widely distributed across the landscape than they have been in the past. As a result, there are fewer areas where bears can be bears without running into people, their homes, their gardens, and their garbage.

We also know that bears evolved to be very efficient food-finding machines. Between July and September each year, bears enter a period called hyperphagia, where they are putting on massive amounts of body fat to prepare for hibernation.  In this period, they need to take in approximately 20,000 calories a day. That’s the equivalent of 36 Big Macs, every single day! Bears also have long life spans (more than 20 years in the wild), and readily learn and remember the locations of reliable food sources.  Moreover, bears have a very keen sense of smell and can smell foods up to 5 miles away. 

When people live in an area, they bring with them a wealth of calorie-dense, plentiful foods such as garbage, gardens, fruit trees, pet foods, bird feeders, and grills. These foods require little energy for bears to find. This creates a literal smorgasbord for bears in many areas. Unfortunately, eating human food can compromise the health of bears and potentially change their natural food-finding behaviors, leading them to be involved in conflicts with people. The outcomes of these interactions for people are usually inconvenient (e.g. having to pick up strewn trash), but the consequences for bears are often lethal, as problem-causing bears are often killed. Conflicts have become so frequent in some areas, that some cities require all residents to own and use a bear-resistant garbage container, which reduces the garbage available to bears.

How you can help

To keep bears acting like bears and maintain the “naturalness” of the areas where we live, we must all take action to prevent bears from getting into trouble with people. You may feel like there is nothing you can do to reduce conflicts or that your actions will not make a difference. I argue that the most effective thing we can do is securing all food available to bears and by convincing our friends and neighbors to do the same. We can make our communities a better place for people and bears to live, just by taking a few simple actions ourselves and helping the idea spread across our communities.

What can you do to reduce your chance of having a bear knock over your garbage can, harass your pets, or damage your fruit trees?  It’s simple, really. First, make all of the things that taste delicious to a bear very difficult to access. By securing your trash in a bear-proof container, fencing your fruit trees, keeping pet food indoors, and cleaning your grill, you will remove items that attract bears into urban areas. This will encourage bears to feed in natural areas - where there is more than enough food to keep them healthy and well-fed.

Second, talk about what you are doing with your friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, anyone who will listen! Neighbors tend to develop similar habits over time, especially if they see and hear others talking about their actions. Disaster preparedness research tells us that this sort of social learning is much more effective at motivating action than impersonal information from experts (e.g. city officials, wildlife managers, etc.). Tell them how easy it is to secure your garbage until the morning of trash pick-up. Tell them what a large apple crop you’ve had this year because no bears are breaking limbs off your apple tree. And, most importantly, tell them how your actions have helped you feel in control of your own risk of having a conflict with a bear.

Your actions can, and will, have a real effect on bears.  We must all do our part to reduce the food that attracts bears into towns and cities, to keep bears acting wild and safe from the lethal consequences of a free lunch. Please join me in me in ensuring that our communities stay beautiful, natural, and safe places for people and black bears to co-exist.

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