Friday, May 18, 2007

Guest blog: Living in bear country

Living in an area where bears occur means that you need to adapt to them. The sheer size and strength of bears makes them a factor that you have to consider for many of the decisions you take in your daily life. Take going out for a walk for example. For your own safety it is a good idea to become a bit of a biologist so that you can recognize where you might encounter a bear and a bit of an animal behaviorist to know how to act to avoid an attack in case an encounter does happen. That extra knowledge is also important for decisions like where to store your trash, your dog food and if you will have a birdfeeder in your garden. Seemingly trivial things for those who do not live in 'bear country', but essential if you do and want to avoid luring bears to your house with all that potential food. Once that happens, a bear is often doomed. A food conditioned bear is not afraid of humans and will actively search them out because it knows that food is always nearby. Knowing that there are bears in the forests and mountains around you is one thing, but bumping into one when you open your backdoor is quite something else. Some very smart bears have even developed a way to scare hikers out of their backpacks in order to get to the food inside it. By chance they found out that hikers often drop their backpack to distract an aggressive bear's attention so that they had a chance to escape. From that it was only a small step for the bears to learn that a bluff charge will make the human simply drop the food right in front of your feet! Now if that isn't easy food! However, not much is needed to transform such a bluff charge, really not intended to hurt the hiker, into a full charge. So, conditioning bears to our food, be it in the garbage or in a backpack, intentional or not, can lead to extremely dangerous situations. Even if a conditioned bear has not been aggressive towards people yet, quite often the bear will be killed as a precaution because the conditioning is very hard to undo.

a grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) in Kananaskis Country

Negative conditioning is possible though, but is usually only successful in the very early stages. Because it can not only save human lives, but also that of bears, it is an important tool in the conservation of the animals. The method is often to shoot a bear with non-lethal rubber bullets, by making lots of noise and sometimes by letting specially trained dogs (Karelian bear dogs) harass the bear. This is done when a bear is found feeding or looking for food in or very close to a human settlement, so that it will start to associate that place with pain, irritation and other negative experiences instead of with an easy meal. This sounds easier than it really is. First of all, you have to be ready to start the negative conditioning as soon as the bear strikes. To be able to do this, some areas have specialized teams that are on the alert all the time. As you can see on this photograph of a grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) in Kananaskis Country (Alberta, Canada), some bears wear transmitters (you can see an antenna hanging down from the ear tag), so that it is possible to keep an eye on their whereabouts. If the bear comes too close to a human settlement, the team can be ready on the spot, which makes the process all the more effective. The earlier a bear can be treated, the greater the chance of success and the smaller the chance that it will have to be shot.

The transmitter is not only used for this, but also for studying bears. A better understanding of the animals is also necessary for the conservation of the species, but can also help to reduce the risk of conditioning and dangerous encounters. Amongst other things, being able to monitor the places where bears hang out through the seasons has shown that they often choose different places as the year progresses. In Banff National Park for example, that has led to closures of certain areas for the public in a certain period of the year because it is very likely that bears will be there at that time. This way, a lot of trouble can be avoided and it makes it easier for humans and bears to share their living space in peace.

Written by Arthur Sevestre

In support of Project Canada this blog will feature small articles written by Arthur Sevestre about environmental and conservational issues in Canada. If you are interested in the goals of this project, please check out the website.

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