Bear management: An “unbearable” moral conundrum

(Photo | NH Fish & Game)

Wildlife management agencies have a long-standing slogan when it comes to bears: A Fed Bear Is A Dead Bear. And yet, despite the beating of the “keep wildlife wild” drum, bears are continually enticed into our suburban backyards.

When it comes to stoking the proverbial flames of bear conflict, the seemingly consistent follies of an out-of-touch cross-section of North American citizenry seems to present itself with a puzzling double-standard unmatched by other nationally polarizing topics.

I’m reminded of the 1988 film classic The Great Outdoors - where John Candy’s character, in an attempt to bond with his son at a north country campground, heads to the local tourist destination known as “the bear dump” - where locals dump trash for the bears so visiting campers can get a “view of nature” from the comforts of their parked cars. To get a front row seat, Candy starts throwing Zagnut bars at the bears to draw them closer. He reflects on the error of his ways after multiple bears start climbing on his vehicle in search of more “goods”. The scene ends with the actor’s 1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer pulling away from the bear dump with the brazen beasts still balancing atop the roof and hood.

The film’s entertaining portrayal of the stereotypical “touristy flatlander” is out-shined only by Candy’s epic slaying of The Ol’ 96’er!

While John Candy’s naive comedic gold serves most as casual entertainment, it also highlights a psyche that plays out in the “more serious sense” across the fragmented forested suburban-scapes of North America on an increasingly regular basis.

Nationally, perhaps aside from the wolf or coyote, there’s few wild fur bearing animals that have generated more debate, discussion, and publicity than Ursus americanus - the American Black Bear.

The black bear is the smallest of the three bear species found throughout North America, and is found only in North America. And like most Americans, it has established itself quite well amid the suburban expansion of mankind.

Throughout the last decade, the Black Bear has generated polarizing debate about how best to manage a wild species that can reach weights in excess of 600 pounds, and develop an insatiable pallet for human-processed foods. This love for junk food can often turn an innocent nuisance issue into a real public safety threat quickly.

For this reason, many state wildlife agencies will heavily defend the regulated hunting of bears in their respective states to help manage both overabundance and potential public conflict more so than with other “charismatic” species.

While states like Maine and New Jersey have had to fight hard to keep what bear management they currently have in place and out of the hands of animal rights groups, other states like Connecticut and Florida have fought just to get a seat at the table to effectively manage their growing black bear conflict - to date, in both cases, unsuccessfully.

Regardless of how you feel about bear hunting, there’s something to be said for the ursus’ growing affinity for an urban lifestyle. Think of them as a 300-pound raccoon rummaging through your rubbish bins - the original “trash pandas”. Add defensive mothers with cubs, and the American black bear is a wild animal that commands common sense, a fair share of distance, and respect.

Regulated hunting can assist with many aspects of bear conflict mitigation, but it should be strongly emphasized that not all wildlife conflict can’t be solved lethally by way of rifle or trap. It takes a public citizenry that is willing to recognize when to keep the wilds wild, and help state agencies with policing human-induced bear attraction. Lock up your dumpsters, bring in the bird-feeders, and keep the campsites clean - all aspects of civilian life that make perfect sense for those already living in bear country.

But what happens when the bears start leaving “bear country” and start heading for the concrete and asphalt in search of those easy meals? More importantly, what happens when the public citizenry is more enthralled with regularly viewing bears on their back porches than with keeping those wild animals wild?

Science seems to be supporting the notion that bears are ditching rural America, and following the skunks, coyotes, and raccoons into the densely populated suburbs for fat-rich resources at a low cost of effort. Anecdotal evidence also seems to suggest that while more folks become disconnected from hunting activities and away from the irrefutable realities of nature, it seems to be getting harder to keep those bears wild - and properly manage them.

An Inconvenient Trend

NH Fish & Game reported via social media last week that a wayward bear destroyed conservation signage. (Photo | NH Fish & Game Facebook)

While the regulated hunting and harvest of abundant black bear populations relies on conservation-minded modes to administer a selective seasonal hunt, nuisance black bears desperate for a meal or causing public safety issues are killed when the damage takes place - regardless of time of year or the scientific merits of removing such individuals from the landscape.

As the topic of regulated hunting and management of black bear populations continues to be a sore one from state to state, those who don’t support the controlled hunting of bears rarely become aware of the aftereffects of such a well intentioned stance.

In the Northeast U.S., last year saw nuisance bear complaints skyrocket across most of the region. The increase in conflict was blamed mostly on natural food shortages from a boom & bust mast cycle. The lack of food driving bear activity was also responsible for an influx and subsequent die-off of acorn-dependent rodents. With a decline in natural food availability, inevitably came a sharp increase in abandoned bear cubs and desperate adult bears taking higher risks to achieve food-store capacity before winter hibernation.

With the natural food shortages of 2018 clearly exacerbating an already growing bear conflict in urban New England, the question remains whether natural food shortages are totally to blame, or if a decline in hunting pressure and an uptick in habitat loss, climate change, and ignorance amongst “animal lovers” feeding and habituating desperate bears has been fueling the trend year over year.

Not sure what I mean? Refer to just a snippet of the most recent headlines across the Northeast involving nuisance bears.

Vermont Fish and Wildlife game wardens were forced to dispatch (kill) a nuisance black bear on July 12th after the animal was habituated to stealing food from a campsite. Wardens noted that the bear had a continued history of approaching people on the Appalachian Trail, and had most recently torn into two tents in search of food scraps left by humans.

More recently, a Vermont homeowner used a crossbow to shoot and kill a 2-year-old black bear as it was trying to enter his house.

How about the bear that had to be dispatched in neighboring New Hampshire after the animal forced its way into a Jackson home on July 28th?

Or the popular “touristy roadside-camping area” on nearby Tripoli Road in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest - which had to be shut down in early July due to “ongoing nuisance bear activity” from resident black bears gorging on the leavings of sloppy campers? Park rangers said bears had continued to receive "food rewards" from tourists, creating an unsafe situation.

There’s also the days-old news release of three bears breaking into a home in Lincoln, New Hampshire - repeatedly. The ordeal was captured on the homeowner’s security camera - with the homeowner actually inside the residence for one of the break-ins.

And who could forget the triumphant (and expected) return of the bear nicknamed Mink, this past May? The Hanover, New Hampshire bear created national headlines last June after protestors demanded NH’s Governor stop the state’s Fish & Game Department from euthanizing the animal after repeated conflict issues in town over residents hand-feeding the habituated bear. Due to the pressure, the state was forced to trans-locate the bear and her cubs - potentially drawing ire from officials in neighboring Maine and Vermont who were less than pleased with New Hampshire’s problem bear now becoming their problem bear after being released close to the state borders.

Also back in May, a video of bears fighting in a New Jersey suburban backyard made national headlines.

And its not just an East Coast trend.

Just last week, a black bear broke into a Colorado house over the weekend and left by breaking through a wall.

Oregon made headlines in June when state officials shot a bear after it became so habituated to humans, citizens were getting close enough to take “selfies” with it. In 2007 Oregon Fish & Wildlife managers had to euthanize seven black bears in one district alone.

Over the border in British Columbia, Canada, officials received word of a female black bear and her two cubs rummaging through unsecured garbage in a Vancouver neighborhood for the past six weeks. The bears were dispatched by officers after three residents stepped between the officers and the mother black bear with two cubs. The conservation service answered more than 1,000 bear reports in the area this year alone. A total of eight bears, including the three from that Tuesday, have been destroyed, while three others were successfully relocated.

A Denver woman visiting Whistler, Canada made national headlines two weeks ago when she captured footage of a black bear aggressively charging her on a hiking trail.

Also around the same time, a bear was dispatched by officials in Yellowstone Park after the bear raided a decoy campsite setup by park rangers shortly after the same bear bit a woman through her tent while sleeping.

And let’s not forget the recent case of a female bear with cubs who killed a domestic dog after a backyard encounter in Florida’s panhandle.

These are just the reports that have slid across my desk unsolicited this month. The list above doesn’t include the countless black bear conflicts and reports that have taken place across the country and reported on social media, in other local news outlets, or reported to state wildlife agencies.

Certainly, one could debate that it isn’t necessarily “the animal’s fault”, or that critical habitat is being gobbled up insatiably by infrastructure every minute; but then again, one could also argue that the majority of the non-hunting public is at the epicenter of the bear management conundrum.

And quite the conundrum it is.

Location, Location, Location

To hunt or not to hunt - that’s the 1.1 billion dollar question.

While activists are quick to decry that hunting tactics such as baiting exacerbates nuisance bear issues by seeming to drive bears to “crave” human foods, those activists are not so quick to recognize where, and more importantly when, nuisance bear issues are taking place.

In New Hampshire’s case, USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services took 1,996 nuisance bear calls from year 2015 to 2018. Only 32 of those 1,996 calls took place within the state’s hunting season for bears over bait. Translation - roughly 98% of the state’s nuisance bear calls over a 4 year period took place outside the regulated bear hunting season.

Research has also contended that the hunting of bears over bait may actually aid in reduction of nuisance bear conflict in urban areas.

Hunters who pursue bears seasonally and in a regulated fashion over bait piles, mimic what some researchers refer to as “diversionary feeding”. Since the hunting of bears takes place in bear habitat (like the forested woods) rather than behind the local urban Food Mart, the evidence suggests that bears are less likely to associate these foods with human development; thus reducing the likelihood of habituation to human industrialization - and negative human conflict.

Of course, the make-up of said bait must also be taken into account. Many states have outlawed the use of chocolate products, for example, as these items can be toxic to certain wildlife species - including bears.

It would seem as though increasingly abundant food availability in suburban, human-rich environments is a higher driving factor of bear conflict than the perceived seasonal hunting of bears in their natural habitat.

In other words, while many throughout the country proclaim their contempt and disgust for the regulated hunting of bears, many more - whether knowingly, or unknowingly - are, in part, frivolously killing more and more bears.

In the case of animal rights activism, it would seem as though more focus should be placed upon educating citizens to reduce feeding opportunities and attractions for bears in suburban environments - rather than continue to vilify the licensed bear hunter.

An Uncertain Future

Just as bear/human conflict seems to be on the rise, so does the criticism for state wildlife agencies. In the wake of every bear/conflict incident, it seems the average citizen adds their 2 cents too many about what could’ve been “done differently” to deal with a nuisance or habituated bear issue in middle America. Everything from tranquilizer darts administered with SWAT surgical precision, to free room and board at rehabilitation centers - the criticism pours on for days; as if there’s some magical island where every nuisance bear creating a public safety issue retires peacefully after being “evicted” from the ‘burbs.

Unfortunately, the fairy-tale of every “problem” creature destined for a “rehabilitation oasis” is exactly that - a fairy tale.

There's no sugar-coating the obvious - having to dispatch any animal outside of a regulated season is not preferred, and should not be considered routine by any means. But the sad reality is that it is becoming routine.

Nagging questions remain. Now that our society is becoming aware of bear conflict, how long should we continue to play “musical bears” - transporting problem animals from one end of our state borders to the other - before we address the elephant, or in this case, the bear, in the room?

The above-mentioned trends seem to present themselves with an ulterior moral dilemma. How far are we, as a society, willing to tolerate increasingly aggressive bears? Where do we draw the line between wild animals playfully ripping down bird-feeders or mulling around with cubs through suburban neighborhoods, and coming home to find a 200-pound ball of black fur gnawing on a spiral ham on the sofa?

Most people at the heart of the debate are well aware of a bear population’s natural carrying capacity; but then again, in the 21st century, one must also factor in the public’s own social carrying capacity for “nuisance” bears.