I’d like to make a few points that you might think about if you decide to write another article on this situation, particularly if CDOW moves forward with their efforts to resolve this situation with additional hunting pressure.
1) No one has ever demonstrated a correlation between population size and the number of human-bear conflicts. When natural food supplies are limited EVERY bear has the potential to become a conflict bear, so the number of conflicts experienced in communities located in bear habitat is often a function of the degree of stress on the bear population caused by limited availability of natural foods, not on population size.
2) The social structure of bear populations assures dominate individuals access to food first, so if supplies are limited, you can expect subdominant individuals (subadult males) and nutritionally stressed females with young to show up in conflict situations before dominant bears (adult males). In a hunting situation, adult males are often more susceptible to hunting than other classes of bears, probably because they range over larger areas and are less wary about using open areas than subdominant individuals or females accompanied by cubs. The net result is that sport hunting tends to focus on bears that are generally LESS involved in conflict situations, so you really haven’t done much to resolve your conflict situation by increasing hunting pressure on the population. Please keep in mind that I’m making some generalizations here and that there are exceptions — you do get adult males involved in conflict situations, but it is generally subadult males that are the more frequent offenders.
3) One aspect of significant collapses in the availability of natural foods in a bear population, whether it is a result of drought or spring freezes, is that the bear population declines naturally. Most people interpret the increase in the number of conflicts as prima facia evidence that the population has increased beyond its carrying capacity (and technically it has in the very short-term). However, what’s actually happening on the ground is the population is about to adjust to a lowered carrying capacity through a decline in natural reproduction and higher than normal mortality in subdominant bears. Female bears breed in the early spring but don’t produce cubs until mid winter. If summer/fall food supplies are good then the females produce young. If summer/fall food supplies are not good (availability or quality) then they will not produce cubs the following winter (the mechanism for this is not well understood, but there is not doubt that it happens).
In a situation where natural food is in short supply, several things happen at the same time: 1) more bears become involved in conflict situations and are killed in management actions; 2) sport harvest of bears typically increases; 3) many subadult bears (primarily yearlings that have just split from their mothers) die as a result of lack of food resources; and 4) few cubs are born the following year to females that were bred in the spring.
The net result is that the bear population size declines as a result of the lack of food resources; some by the gun or through management actions by the agencies and others through natural causes. You can see that increasing sport hunting harvest on top of these natural mortalities drives the population down even further, while not addressing the root causes of the conflicts or even reducing the potential for conflicts if you have another year of poor food production. I would argue that all it does is allow the agencies to “show” that they’ve done something to address the problem, and allow the public to carry on as usual by continuing to make human related foods available to bears. Both actions perpetuate the potential for conflict and neither one works to alleviate conflicts in the future.
4) The last point I will make is that talk about educating the public about the causes of human-bear conflicts will not solve the problem. We see it over and over again. When compliance is high as a result of educational efforts (or more likely increased enforcement of regulations regarding disposal of garbage) bear conflicts decrease; then compliance falls off (as does enforcement) because the problem has “gone away” and conflicts increase.
Two things need to happen to make this situation better: 1) we need to implement standardized regulations that will not allow bears access to human attractants and enforce those regulations; 2) We need to enhance our efforts to educate the public to include approaches that will result in behavioral changes.
Education alone will not change peoples behavior, at least in enough cases to make much of a difference. CDOW needs to evaluate what are the deterrents to behavioral changes that exist in various communities. In some cases it might simply be money, in other cases it might be convenience. Regardless, there are factors that prevent people (who are educated and should know better) from doing the right thing. CDOW needs to identify those barriers and work to implement measures that will address those needs. You pointed out in your article that human-bear conflicts are only going to get worse as more people move into bear habitat. I’m sure that it won’t just be related to bears, but will include other species of wildlife. I do not think that CDOW can afford to continue to use old, ineffective approaches to resolve these conflicts. They need to think outside the box and try new innovative ways to change the behavior of people, so that they can co-exist with bears and other species of wildlife. I know it can be done because I see it in places where people have co-existed with grizzly and black bears for generations because they have taken actions to reduce the availability of attractants to those bears and, as a result, conflicts are not a significant issue.
John J. Beecham, Ph.D.
2723 N. Lakeharbor Ln.
Boise, ID 83703