I recently attended the Western Black Bear Workshop and like many of these meetings the theme was on how to reduce human-bear conflict. The workshop is mostly a forum for managers from different states and provinces to gather and exchange ideas on management problems and solutions, population trends, and hunting regulations. I tried to capture one of the most intriguing ideas put forward at the workshop in this tweet:
Since I had the opportunity to discuss this idea with the speaker and others, I wanted to expand on it in this blog post.
(tl;dr bear population sizes are increasing while humans are moving into bear habitat; OMG secure your garbage)
The reasons for increasing human-bear conflict are numerous. First, bear population sizes are rising across most of the range. This is in part due to lower persecution by humans. Bears like all animals have some minimum resource requirements, and as a solitary species their homeranges with other bears do not have a lot of overlap. Thus, they are making micro-range expansions into available habitat/resources.
Second (and most importantly), humans are moving into bear habitat. As more individual houses and/or developments are constructed at city edges or in rural areas, people are gradually moving closer to wildlife. However, as many of the wildlife agents note, they are not changing their behavior to fit this unique environment, and this encourages wildlife conflict. For example, setting up bird feeders or leaving dog food unsecured end up being attractants for multiple species. Trash containment is another huge issue, living near bears means residents need to pay for a bear-resistant trash can AND properly lock it.
These two factors are thus interacting to increase bear conflict in some areas of the range. While the potential for increased vehicle collisions is real and dangerous for all parties, the issues with food are the most important when managing conflict. Bears get in to garbage cans in neighborhoods or garbage dumps for a quick and high calorie meal. Especially in years where natural foods are in low abundance (i.e. mast [hard nut] fail), bears will seek out human foods. Many scientists and managers are concerned that as climate change worsens, that mast fail years will become more frequent, thus increasing human-bear conflict as bears seek out human foods. The real conflict comes after an individual has successfully gotten the food a few times, as they will become bolder in seeking out more human food. This can be dangerous for people as the bears will not fear humans and may attempt to break in to houses or garages to find food.
Managers Gonna Manage
Wildlife managers have incredibly diverse jobs. They are responsible for estimating population sizes and demographic trends, working with their commission and/or state/provincial governments to set hunting regulations and harvest quotas, conserving species so they are not extirpated (locally extinct) or go extinct, educating the public, supervising staff, designing and implementing research projects, writing reports and/or scientific papers, and dealing with wildlife conflict.
Wildlife managers have a lot of different ways they can approach human-wildlife conflict with bears. They can:
- Trap and relocate an animal
- Haze a bear while in the act of getting into trouble. This includes yelling, banging things/making loud frightening noises, being chased by barking Karelian bear dogs, shooting with bean bag guns, or temporarily immobilizing with tasers.
- Monitor the situation to assess if an animal is a transient and will leave areas with humans on its own accord
- Euthanize. Please note this is rarely considered a first option.
All of the above solutions focus on decreasing conflict by engaging the bear. But getting back to my colleague’s point, the future of wildlife management may focus A LOT more on managing people as a way to decrease human-wildlife conflict. Examples include:
- Education, especially of kids. Many managers noted the effectiveness of having children shame their parents into properly securing their garbage. And that teaching kids now may lead to better citizens later.
- Education of the door-to-door or community variety. Managers are out there talking to individual citizens to raise awareness about how to decrease conflict with wildlife.
- Changing local ordinances, especially in regards to securing garbage and trash pick-up.
- Partnering with homeowners associations (HOAs) to develop neighborhood policies but more importantly social norms to decrease human behaviors that promote wildlife conflict.
- Working with real estate agents to disclose diverse wildlife issues to home buyers
- Working within communities to change zoning regulations that discourage development extending into wildlife habitat.
Is The Future of Wildlife Management Really People Management?
Pardon me if I stereotype, but the wildlife managers I’ve met have a deep appreciation for nature, and it must be one of the greatest pulls towards the profession. These people camp, hunt, fish, hike, canoe, etc. and they always seem like they want to lay their eyes and hands upon the magnificent animals they manage. My impression has always been that wildlife managers are a group of people that have found a way to turn their hobby into a job. But if my colleague is right that education, policy work, developing innovative partnerships, and writing tickets is the future of wildlife management, what does that do to the profession and the people that most want to work in it? This is worth thinking about at universities and wildlife agencies; specifically, identifying the skills that need to be taught and hired for in the future workforce.
Following the quote in my tweet, my colleague made two points. First, is the one above that the actual jobs of wildlife managers are shifting as conflict rises, and tolerance (by citizens) and know-how (by managers) for lethal solutions decreases. Second, he was saying that one outspoken but well liked neighbor within an HOA or community leader can drive effective change in a community. This idea can extend to social media both within and outside of management agencies. Specifically, influencers may be able to decrease human-wildlife conflict by effectively convincing people to change their individual behaviors. Note that this goes well beyond providing facts and educating people about issues. In fashion, social media influencers create/accelerate trends and boost sales of products. Thus for wildlife management, influencers would need to convince people to change their behaviors that lead to conflict with wildlife. We don’t yet know what messages will be effective especially with the diversity of species specific conflict issues. But breaking through to people so they acknowledge that yes their individual actions contribute to conflict with wildlife seems a first step. Many managers at the workshop noted how people do not want to acknowledge their role in creating the conflict, and particularly want to blame others. The managers really highlighted how individual actions either directly create conflict (i.e. not securing your food when you camp) or collectively make an environment that encourages conflict. Thus, the charismatic people that want to influence others must first find a message of personal responsibility, then convince people to change their behavior to decrease conflict. And success means that people win, and bears win.