The swift rebound of bear populations in the US is presenting a growing number of Americans with a major challenge – what to do about the enormous hirsute neighbors that are breaking into their homes, gorging on their food and guzzling their cans of soda?
Black bears, largely relieved of pressure on their numbers from untrammeled deforestation and hunting, are increasingly coming into contact with people in places where the two species haven’t interacted in many decades.
“Bears are a good conservation story, but they are starting to show up in places that haven’t seen them in generations, 80 years or more,” said Jon Beckmann, science director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Rocky Mountain west program. “We are seeing conflicts happen in the west, as well as New York, New Jersey, all over the place. We want to see more species on the landscape but we have to realize there’s an impact on people when they interact, too.”
Beckmann took part in newly published research that analyzed expanding bear populations around Nevada, including the Lake Tahoe region.
The study found that between 1997 and 2013, nearly 300 bears died in the region from car collisions or being shot for being a nuisance or a danger to people. In this period, the bear population in the area grew by about 16%, meaning ursine overlap with new housing developments in places such as Reno and Carson City.
Residents unused to the presence of black bears rapidly became acquainted – a confectionary maker was targeted by a bear that broke in and ate 24lb of pure butter. Another resident was the victim of a raid where a bear consumed a 50lb bag of birdseed in one sitting. Others realized bears were rummaging around for cans of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, opening them using their canine teeth.
Conservationists have worked to dampen conflict by urging communities to install bear-proof garbage bins, remove bird feeders and ban the feeding of black bears, a species that typically consumes about 25,000 calories a day before winter hibernation. But the spread of bears means it is hard to keep up.
In eastern states, there have been sharply divided views on whether hunting should be used more widely to curb bear numbers. New Jersey, which has the densest population of bears of any state, recently banned bear hunting on state land. State officials have previously said New Jersey’s bear population would double within four years without a hunt.
In Connecticut, there is an increasing population of several hundred bears, state authorities say. In a recent incident, a 82-year-old woman woke up to find a bear in her bedroom in the town of Canton. The bear headed to the kitchen, where it rifled through her cabinets before fleeing into the woods after police officers fired bean bags at it. Another bear broke into a car. Yet another was shot after being found in a pen of goats.
There have been a record 22 bear break-ins in Connecticut over the past year. “It’s scary,” said Tom Bradley, whose house, also in Canton, was visited by a bear . “Sooner or later, some child, some elderly person, some dog is going to walk out between a bear and her cub and it’s going to be a disaster.”
There have also been record levels of human-bear interaction in upstate New York, with more than 1,300 nuisance incidents reported to state authorities this year.
Although black bear habitat has radically shrunk since European arrival to North America, a slowdown in deforestation and new hunting laws have helped reverse their fortunes. An estimated 300,000 now roam the US, a far larger population than their humpbacked cousin, the grizzly, which is only found in a few remnant areas and recently narrowly avoided being hunted for the first time in decades around Yellowstone.
Despite the increasing overlap, however, bear attacks on people are vanishingly rare and improved practices around removing food sources has meant the increase in population has been faster than the uptick in incidents.
New housing developments in picturesque bear habitat and climate change, which may alter areas suitable for bears, will play further roles in future interactions between bear and human.
“There’s no shortage of bear food in the world, but there’s a shortage of human tolerance to coexist,” said David Mattson, a bear expert and former official at the US Geological Survey. “Black bears and mountain lions are relics of the Pleistocene, they are one of the few large carnivores to survive the onslaught of humans on this continent. They have done so well because they are shy and retiring. They tend to avoid conflict.”
Mattson said there are “straightforward” things that can be done to avoid conflict, such as securing waste food and building bear-resistant fences.
“It’s not inevitable that we will have more conflicts if we have more bears around,” he said. “Sure, if you slaughter enough bears you won’t have conflicts, but that would take us back to where we were in 1900, which would be tragic.
“It all really gets back to our world view, specifically our view of ourselves in nature in relation to other animals. Bears make demands of us that other wildlife don’t, which throws our attitudes into sharp relief.”