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Wildlife
Scare Tactics
Making parks safer for people and bears.

Black bears in the Adirondacks have learned to pop the tops off bear-proof food canisters. Yosemite black bears preferentially claw their way into minivans littered with cookie crumbs and chips. Their kin in New Hampshire notoriously destroy feeders in an attempt to gorge on birdseed.

For people, such conflicts can result in property damage or, rarely, personal harm. For bears, the consequences can be deadly. Urban black bears are more sedentary, weigh more, and die younger than their wilderness-dwelling counterparts. Bears that repeatedly go after human food are put down. “It is a comprehensive problem that’s going to take comprehensive solutions,” says Randy Hampton of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “There are rubber bullets, but there’s no silver bullet.”

Despite aggressive campaigns—newspaper articles, campground storage lockers, signs in restrooms, movies at visitors’ centers, signs and stickers emblazoned with “A fed bear is a dead bear”—people are careless. “The most effective way to raise awareness is one-on-one contact with visitors,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Rachel Mazur. “But park staff can’t talk to every visitor.”

Efforts to outsmart bears have had mixed results, as seen with canisters in the Adirondacks. In Aspen an electrified mat in front of an outdoor freezer stopped bear robberies. But, Hampton says, “you can’t put them everywhere. You can’t electrify the dumpster.”

Wildlife managers have increasingly turned to “aversive conditioning,” including noisemakers, rubber slugs, and chasing bears. Mazur tested such techniques on 150 bears in Sequoia National Park, where incidents have dropped from around 500 a year to 100. Hazing and rubber slugs prevented bears that didn’t regularly eat human provisions from forming that habit, she reported in the January Journal of Wildlife Management. For the 29 bears used to snacking on people food, aversive conditioning reformed 17, six required more treatment, and six were relocated or killed.

Among the casualties was a bear reared near people. “It was the most active little cub,” Mazur says. “It got too used to humans, and by the time it was a subadult, we had to kill it.”

The best way to protect bears is to store food properly and maintain distance, says Mazur. The problem isn’t
really bears—it’s people.

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