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Bear problems? Try asking your neighbor what they're doing about it

By Jessica West


New research suggest people are more likely to take action to reduce bear conflicts—if their neighbors are doing the same thing.

Photo by Matt Koller


Bear in Mind

A bowl of cat food, a pizza slice from the garbage can, a compost bin full of banana peels… truly, a buffet made in heaven for a bear. Neighborhoods offer a bountiful supply of resources, all without having to lift much more than a trash can lid. However, causing bears to lose their natural fear of humans via feeding (intentional or otherwise) typically results in community-created problems for both bears and people.


“A fed bear is a dead bear,” as the saying goes, where bears can become sick from eating human food or become a danger to human safety over time [1]. Residents may also have to contend with costly damages to property after a visit from a bear, and wildlife managers often resort to lethally removing the offending animal. But what roles can the general public and wildlife managers play in preventing human-bear conflicts?


A Conflict of (Neighborly) Interest

In a 2018 study published in The Journal of Wildlife Management, researchers from the University of Montana surveyed a total of 1,080 Montana residents living within grizzly and black bear habitats [2], asking a series of questions regarding what kinds of conflict-reducing measures they take to secure their bear attractants. Such measures included proper garbage and food storage, use of electric fences, removal of fallen tree fruit and bird feeders, and livestock carcass removal- all in the name of preventing free-handouts to bears.

Results from the survey indicated that residents were more likely to try using conflict-preventing measures if their neighbors were also actively storing attractants. Residents who had recent bear conflicts were also more likely to remove or secure bear attractants after having spoken with a professional (i.e., state agency personnel, county land manager, land trust, wildlife advocacy group, and/or local tribal community). Additionally, respondents who claimed to trust the government were less likely to use bear‐resistant garbage containers or remove livestock carcasses. Clearly, human-bear conflicts are being viewed from the perspective of neighborhoods and not just from individuals.


Keeping Up With The Joneses

Survey respondents as a whole recognize that conflict-reducing strategies require individuals to contribute for the collective good – that is, working together as a community to solve problems. For example, even if one resident switches to using bear-resistant trash cans, it makes little to no difference in reducing future conflicts with bears if their neighbors don’t use similar measures. These “collective factors” may be the key element in preventing and mitigating conflict with bears (and other wildlife) on private lands.


As the lead author of the Montana study, Holly Nesbitt, shared in an interview with the University of Montana, “we’re arguing that securing bear attractants – that coexistence with wildlife – is a collective-action problem because you need multiple people – landowners specifically – to pull it off. Their actions protect themselves and their neighbors [3].”


Wildlife-based “neighborhood watch” programs have already been implemented in other states with success, as demonstrated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s “Wildlife Watch” program (focusing primarily on coyote conflicts) [4]. This suggests that like-minded residents may only be successful in preventing future conflicts by keeping tabs on which conflict-reducing measures their neighbors are taking.


Micro-Managing

Wildlife managers should also be actively connecting with landowners experiencing conflicts and encouraging communities to work together to find effective solutions. A 2008 study conducted in Florida concluded that community members who reported bear incidents to the state agency were more willing to adopt conflict-reducing measures recommended by staff [5].


However, residents were also inclined to believe that wildlife managers should be responsible for (and are more capable of) reducing bear conflicts in the long run – indicating that much work still needs to be done by managers to encourage communities to be accountable. As Holly Nesbitt explains, “instead of [managers] saying, ‘Bears are dangerous. Secure your attractants,’ say, ‘It’s really important to your neighbors that you secure your attractants. Your neighbor is doing it, too.’ Our data suggests that kind of messaging is likely to be more effective at promoting voluntary behaviors [3].”


Bottom Line: Conflict is Complicated

Human-bear conflict certainly won’t disappear overnight, but a community effort with support from professionals can’t hurt. Handing out the usual pamphlet to every individual experiencing bear conflict is one strategy, but as the Montana study suggests, this may be less effective in the long run without viewing each situation as unique and in need of a community-based solution. There is clearly a need for some give and take, where wildlife managers and communities must both put in the effort to find solutions to human-bear conflicts.


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References:


[1] Jerek, Joe. MDC Reminds People That a Fed Bear Is a Dead Bear, Missouri Department of Conservation, 16 Sept. 2016, mdc.mo.gov/newsroom/mdc-reminds-people-fed-bear-dead-bear.


[2] Nesbitt, Holly K., et al. “Collective Factors Reinforce Individual Contributions to Human‐Wildlife Coexistence.” The Journal of Wildlife Management, 2021, doi:10.1002/jwmg.22061.


[3]“UM Research Suggests Social Factors Important for Human-Wildlife Coexistence.” College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana, 27 May 2021, www.umt.edu/news/2021/05/052721bear.php.


[4] Wildlife Watch Program, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, https://wildlife.ca.gov/wildlife-watch.


[5] Pienaar, Elizabeth F., et al. “Understanding People’s Willingness to Implement Measures to Manage Human-Bear Conflict in Florida.” Journal of Wildlife Management, vol. 79, no. 5, 2015, pp. 798–806, doi:10.1002/jwmg.885.