Is the death penalty the only answer for pesky black bears who want to make a midnight snack run on your refrigerator?
It’s 3 a.m. on June 18 and Roxborough Park, Colorado, resident, Vickie Ockey, bolts upright in bed to the sound of someone breaking into her home. Her husband arms himself with a mop and heads downstairs to investigate. It takes a minute, but soon he yells up to her, “There’s a f#$@ing bear in the house.”
Vickie grabs a camera. Snaps a couple photos. The bear ignores the bright flash. Vickie dials 911 while her husband opens up the sliding door. The bear takes his cue and ambles off into the night. In the morning, officers from the Colorado Department of Wildlife (CDOW) arrive and tell Vickie they are going to set a trap for the bear so he can be tranquilized and relocated.
The next day, the CDOW captures the bear … and promptly euthanizes it.
FED BEARS AND DEAD BEARS
According to the CDOW, the two main reasons bears must be destroyed in Colorado are because they habituate to easy access of human food and show no fear of people. However, to say that a “fed bear is a dead bear,” puts a bear’s fate squarely in citizens’ hands, and perhaps lets the CDOW off a bit easy. In 2009, the CDOW killed almost ninety black bears, more than double the average for the last fifteen years. If you ask them why, they will tell you it’s because they had no choice.
“People think we don’t like wildlife. Why would we come work here if we didn’t love wildlife?” says Jennifer Churchill, CDOW Public Information Officer, Northeast Region. “Having to put animals down for people’s laziness or ignorance about trying to take care of the trash around their home, you know, it’s a really crappy job. Bears are basically walking stomachs, driven by this need to eat. Once they learn to access bird feeders, garbage or pet food, they’ll return over and over again.”
However, preliminary results from the recently concluded Roaring Fork Bear Study (RFBS)—a cooperative study between Colorado State University (CSU), the CDOW and the National Wildlife Research Center—suggest otherwise.
“Garbage bears in one year are not necessarily always garbage bears,” says Kenneth Wilson, co-principal investigator of the study and head of the CSU Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology. The RFBS tracked over 50 Colorado black bears living in close proximity to urban areas over a five-year period. Wilson says, “We found that bears did not become addicted to trash, and in fact, the patterns of seeking human food reversed when more natural food was available.”
Still, the CDOW can’t control the weather to ensure a bumper crop of wild berry and oak acorn every single year, so it’s inevitable that bears will venture into towns located adjacent to open space and wilderness areas. If they find food, they’ll stay; if they don’t, they’ll move on. Churchill cites a recent success story where local government made a difference. In 2006, over forty bears had to be euthanized by the CDOW in Vail. In response, Vail enacted a city ordinance that mandated wildlife-proof receptacles at residences, condos and commercial properties. Lack of compliance was punishable by hefty fines. The result? In 2009, only two Vail bears were euthanized by the CDOW after breaking into homes.
Still, some people find fault with the CDOW for euthanizing bears that have not attacked humans or demonstrated aggressive behavior. Churchill references the Roxborough Park break-in: “Once they lose their fear of humans, we have no options but to euthanize the bears. We will always err on the side of public safety.”
THE CHURCHILL SOLUTION
Are bears as dangerous as we perceive? How can an agency like the CDOW gauge the effectiveness of its existing policies when it doesn’t keep statistics on how many calls it gets or the results of those calls (unless they end in the death of the bear)? In Churchill, Manitoba on the shores of the Hudson Bay, the population of polar bears, the world’s largest land predator, exceeds the population of the town. For almost eight months a year, the hungry and carnivorous bears congregate on this sub-arctic spit of land to wait for the ice to freeze so they can hunt ring seals. Yet even with this daunting one-to-one ratio of bear-to-human, only two people have been killed by polar bears since Churchill’s founding in 1717.
Locals at the Lazy Bear Lodge will tell you that the last time they can remember a bear attacking a human was in the late 1980’s, when a man got drunk and went outside a bar to wrestle with a bear. “Bear could’ve killed the fool,” a woman serving up coffee says. “Instead he just took the guy’s arm.”
Because the polar bear is a major part of the tourism economy for Churchill, killing the bears is not a viable option. Instead, this town with just 900 residents had to find a way to deal with over 1,200 polar bears, some weighing over 1,000 pounds, migrating through its streets. In 1982, wildlife officials converted an old sheet metal military storage facility into a “polar bear jail,” instituted town perimeter patrols at dawn and dusk, and installed a “bear hotline” for residents to report bears getting into trouble in town. The “bear jail” holds up to twenty-two polar bears in cement cells until they can be transported by helicopter (at a cost of $3,000 per flight) north to solid ice. Incarcerated bears stay an average of 30 days, before they are tagged, treated for injuries or infections, tattooed, tranquilized for flight, and then released.
Because the of the bear jail’s expense, logistics and exhaustion of manpower, wildlife managers count on residents to call the hotline so officials can haze the bears back out of town before they can interact with humans or property. Residents outside the Polar Bear Alert perimeter carry guns with non-lethal cracker shells or steel slugs to scare off the bears, and many keep “Churchill welcome mats” made of plywood and nails at the entrances to their homes. In Churchill, a bear breaking into a cabin for food doesn’t mean that the bear intends the homeowner harm. It just means that the bear is hungry and perhaps curious. It’s this same curiosity that local tour operators exploit in the winter months, by driving tank-like buses called Tundra Buggies through prime polar bear habitat for unparalleled viewing and photographs. While operators must maintain a distance of 100 feet from the bears, the carnivores can and will do whatever they want—often circling vehicles and peering through the windows to get nose-to-nose with tourists.
THE ALASKAN SOLUTION
While the town of Churchill seems to have found effective ways for residents and tourists to live in close proximity to bears, without the animals paying for it, Jennifer Churchill states that the CDOW does not study other states or countries to find out what might be working elsewhere. If it did, the agency would perhaps find another interesting case study in Katmai National Park and Preserve on the Alaskan peninsula.
In Katmai, a handful of park rangers monitor 2,000 brown bears and grizzlies with only two human fatalities in the history of the preserve (Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, who were immortalized in the film Grizzly Man). Treadwell spent 13 summers tracking the bears, living among them, and giving them names including “Mr. Chocolate” and “Rowdy.” Crazy as it may seem, Treadwell left behind stunning footage of the ursine residents of the Grizzly Maze and arguably demonstrated that these ferocious predators could adapt to a continual human presence for over a decade without incidence.
While Treadwell eventually fell victim and was killed by an older, late-season bear, over 25,000 annual visitors to Katmai walk unescorted and unarmed (even pepper spray is banned) among the grizzlies on miles of trails that lead to viewing platforms. On a simple day-hike, it is not unusual to see forty or more grizzlies, including protective sows with cubs. The bears demonstrate no fear of people, and park rangers seem relatively unconcerned about visitor safety, except at the platform sites overlooking the bears as they devour spawning salmon.
AND BACK HERE?
Still, most people agree that it’s important to keep bear-human interactions to a minimum for the safety of animals, people and property. Gretchen Born, Aspen’s Director of Community Safety, says, “Our habitat appears to be just what the bears ordered, and we built homes right at their dining table.” The RFBS (which included Aspen) tested a neighborhood Bear Aware campaign, where volunteers talk to residents about bear-proofing their home sites. Results indicate that education efforts did not change homeowner behavior. Instead, tougher city ordinances and enforcement of trash and composting rules were found to be more effective.
But the CDOW has not changed its policies. On June 23—after nine reported bear sightings in the Roxborough Park neighborhood and the highly publicized euthanization of the bear that trashed the Ockey residence on June 18—a second Roxborough Park homeowner was shocked to find a bear eating a bag of peanuts in her kitchen after entering through an open window. The bear left on its own accord but was trapped and destroyed by CDOW officers the following day.
If the largest land predators on the planet can live in harmony with human beings, why are we making such a fuss about a few berry-loving, 200-pound black bears? In the last decade, black bears killed just six people in the United States—only one of those was in Colorado, an elderly woman who regularly fed a bear on her property. In the end, we’re all complicit and responsible, but perhaps we are also over-reacting. We choose to live and recreate in bear country, and that means assuming certain risks. And the CDOW might look beyond the easy answers to find real solutions that it can prove actually work for bears and people. •
The founder of Women’s Adventure magazine, Michelle Theall teaches writing and photography courses at the Creative Conferences (creativeconferences.com). When she’s not teaching or writing, she’s chasing after her five-year old son or heading off in search of wildlife that can eat her. Visit her blog at michelletheall.com.
NEED TO KNOW
Want to save a bear’s life? Here’s what you can do:
1. Get active in your community by asking others to secure their trash, put up bird feeders, clean up after outdoor parties, harvest fruit from trees and the ground, and lock up pet food. Bear-proof your own property. Don’t feed any wildlife. Otherwise, consider that you get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.
2. Lock your vehicle and keep it free from all food, trash, and coolers.
3. During bear season, keep doors and windows to your home and garage closed and locked. Bears can open latches, but not round knobs.
4. If you see a bear in your yard, scare it away using an escalating level of hazing. Yell. Clap. Bang pots and pans. Use an air horn. Throw pepper balls or use rubber pellets.
5. Never corner a bear. Give the bear an easy escape route. Do not block its exit or challenge it.
6. Re-evaluate the risks of living in close proximity to wildlife.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Read Living With Bears: A Practical Guide to Bear Country by Linda Masterson.