Can Bears And Humans Co-Exist?
2012 was not a good year for bears.
First we heard about a beloved black bear that was shot dead at Lake Tahoe. Sunny was a celebrity bear in the area: a friendly neighbor, known and loved by many of the local residents.
From The Los Angeles Times:
“She was the epitome of how bears and humans can coexist,” said Ann Bryant, an animal rights activist here. “Until she was murdered.”
The morning of July 30, Sunny was found dead on the beach, felled by a shotgun blast.
The killing infuriated Lake Tahoe’s large and vocal community of bear lovers, who raised $35,000 for a reward leading to the arrest and conviction of Sunny’s killer.
After the shooting, suspicion immediately turned to the owner of a property near where Sunny bled to death. Game wardens found no physical evidence; the shotgun left no ballistics. The man whom they call “a person of interest” got a lawyer, left town and has refused to be interviewed.
Bears are a fact of life in the Lake Tahoe area, where around 90 bears have been murdered by game officials since 2009, and every year officials receive over a thousand bear complaints of bears breaking into houses and taking food just on the lake’s California side. (The states of Nevada and California share the lake.)
In Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, the situation last summer was similar, with frequent sightings of black bears in the Park, especially around pockets of civilization where food might be available.
My son, who was a ranger there in 2012, came back to his government-supplied wood cabin after work one day to find his bedroom window flung open, bedroom door shattered, and a bear in the kitchen eating ice cream. The very cute bear made a quick escape and immediately treed itself in the backyard. (See photo above.) The same bear had tried to break into the neighbor’s house and had succeeded in getting into a car.
Official policy is to shoot at these bears with rubber bullets and paintballs to scare them away, but when they are repeatedly caught being a nuisance, they are shot. That was the fate of at least three bears in the Rocky Mountain National Park last summer.
A third incident occurred in late August, when a southern California man was killed by a grizzly bear in Alaska’s Denali National Park after he spent eight minutes shooting photos of the animal. This was the first fatal attack by a grizzly bear in the history of the park, which is located 240 miles north of Anchorage and spans more than 6 million acres.
State troopers, park rangers and wildlife biologists, using the photos to identify the “large male bear,” shot and killed the animal as it was still “defending the kill site along the Toklat River as the recovery team attempted to reach White’s remains,” the park service said.
In all three states, bear-human encounters led to the killing of bears.
What’s the solution?
In New Jersey, the government has instituted a six-day bear hunt, aimed at controlling the state’s black bear population, estimated at about 2,900. Last year, 55 black bears were killed on the first day of the hunt.
It’s part of the state’s two-year-old black bear management program, which includes the hunt, trash management and education, in order to reduce the bear population and the number of bear-human interactions.
In New Jersey, as in California, the most common bear problem residents experience is black bears getting into their garbage. Bears are attracted to neighborhoods by garbage odors, so residents are encouraged to work within their community to make sure all garbage is secured and kept away from bears.
As for the situation in Lake Tahoe, from The Los Angeles Times:
“It’s been an enormous evolutionary change,” said (Ann) Bryant, who runs the Bear League, a self-styled detachment of some 250 volunteers who respond to calls round the clock from residents who’ve had a bear encounter. “The bears living here with us are evolving far faster than we are. They’ve learned to take advantage of us. We haven’t learned to coexist with them. And they’re dying for it.”
The reality is that where they exist, bears are an integral part of nature and a vital component of healthy ecosystems. That means that for people who have chosen to live in areas that are bear habitat, the only permanent solution is to foster coexistence between people and bears.
The bears were there first, but they are suffering because of the way humans have encroached on their territory. Can’t we learn to live together?
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Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Will Molland-Simms