Instead of blaming the bear, prevent the conflict

To protect humans and animals, control trash, bird feeders and other bear banquets.

 

Matt Barnes is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of NewTowncarShare News. He works as a research associate specializing in bears with the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, living in his mobile office between western Colorado and western Montana. He is also an Aldo and Estella Leopold Resident with the Leopold Writing Program in Tres Piedras, New Mexico.


We can all agree that the recent incident in western Colorado, when a black bear bit a 5-year-old child, and the bear was killed in response, was unfortunate and might have been even more tragic. But I’m a biologist who studies bears, and I want to encourage us to pause and take a wider perspective, one that reduces fear and also allows wild creatures like bears to continue to survive in our midst.

Here’s what happened: A bear searching for food wandered into a human community near Grand Junction. A child went outside at night and was bitten and seized by the bear. The mother awoke and screamed at the bear, which dropped the child and fled. The child was badly injured but survived. Wildlife officials from Colorado Parks and Wildlife pursued the bear and killed it. Most of us feel sad for both the child, who was hurt and terrified, and the bear, which was killed, but to blame the bear, the family or the wildlife officials is hardly a helpful response.

Black bears are attracted to fruit trees and other signs of human communities, including this backyard apple tree.

I would have done the same as any of the people involved. When I was just 5 years old, I wandered into the woods alone and sometimes into danger, but I survived. As a bear conservationist, I’ve chased more bears than I can count out of campgrounds and parking lots, and I can say that, yes, the mother probably saved her daughter’s life by screaming at the bear: Black bears will almost always run away from a human they perceive as aggressive.

I’ve relocated bears that got food from human sources, but unfortunately, they usually return to the same site where they first got into trouble. Once, I had to kill a bear that became aggressive toward people after it had gotten food from them.

It is rare to find a documented event, but black bears have stalked and killed people. But that’s not what happened in Colorado. The recent case fits the more common profile of a human (particularly a very small one) and a bear surprising each other at close range. The bear, in all likelihood, simply reacted out of instinct.

Since 2010, in all of North America, there have been only nine fatal black bear attacks, and only three of them occurred south of the Canadian border. In the same time period, there were 11 attacks involving grizzly bears, seven of which were south of the border in Montana and northwestern Wyoming. In almost every case where the bear could be found and identified, the animal was killed.

Killing a bear involved in an attack — even if the attack isn’t fatal or can’t be proven to be predatory — is standard practice among wildlife management agencies. It’s not an act of justice; we call it risk management. Bear biologists do not like to kill bears, but we’re almost unanimous that it needs to happen in some cases. Most of those cases are preventable, however.

Bears are opportunistic omnivores; their life is all about looking for an easy meal. Ideally, that’s out in the wild, but as our communities sprawl into the wilderness they start to look like a smorgasbord of fruit trees, bird feeders, pet-food bowls, grain bins and trash cans. Especially when wild foods are in short supply, such as in a drought year, bears are attracted to us.

We need to look at the bigger picture. These days, there are a lot of us living in bear country, and some of us are even raising fruit trees or backyard chickens. As our communities continue to entice bears, most of us are oblivious to our own involvement. When we leave a dog dish outside, we forget what that means to any wild animal that smells it. We need to think about how we can coexist with wildlife that passes in the night.

The larger issue is a philosophical one. Why do we choose to live in the West, especially in the foothills or mountains? We seek out wildness, beauty and connection to the more-than-human world. But when we do that, we are also choosing to accept nature’s risks — including the unlikely but possible dangers posed by carnivorous animals.

Personally, I feel much more alive when I know I share the landscape with bears or mountain lions, even recognizing that there is a possibility, however remote, that I might die in an encounter with one. Meanwhile, I know I need to do my part to live responsibly, and in community, with the wild world that surrounds us all.

Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that there have been nine fatal black bear attacks in North American since 2010, not 2000.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a dynamic, organized, and creative person with great people skills to be our Recruitment & Hiring Manager to recruit...
  • Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is looking for a variety of positions around the West with our Clean Energy Program. Currently we are hiring a Staff...
  • We are seeking an experienced dynamic leader for a growing conservation organization; $65,000-75,000 salary plus benefits; job description and apply at hawkwatch.org/executivedirector
  • Friends of the Inyo is excited to post our seasonal job offerings for the summer of 2019! We are hiring Trail Ambassadors, Stewardship Crew Members,...
  • This position is responsible for the identification and qualification of major and planned gift prospects and assists in cultivating and soliciting donors through meetings, trips,...
  • Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Protecting Washington State's environment for current and future generations is what we do every day at Ecology. We are a...
  • Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Our Water Quality Program is looking to hire a Senior Stormwater Engineer at our Headquarters building in Lacey, WA This...
  • Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have leadership abilities, experience with rural land protection,...
  • University of Wyoming Foundation Haub School of ENR, Biodiversity Institute, Environmental/Natural Resource Programs https://uwyo.taleo.net/careersection/00_ex/jobdetail.ftl?job=19001001&tz=GMT-06:00
  • The Montana Land Steward develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans, and methods related to TNC's property interest portfolio in Montana. For more information and...
  • POSITION DESCRIPTION: RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR The Raiser's Edge Database Administrator ensures the integrity and effectiveness of the member/donor database by developing systems and processes...
  • We are hiring a Director of Development Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • The Arizona Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic Marketing and Communications Director. Please see the full job description at https://azwildlife.org/jobs
  • Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) in Durango and Silverton, CO is hiring 3 staff: Please visit mountainstudies.org/careers for Assoc Director, Dev and Engagement Director, and Forest...
  • The Center for Collaborative Conservation is hiring a full-time, permanent Director. Applications are due on March 31. Description can be found at http://jobs.colostate.edu/postings/65118 No phone...
  • Program and Outreach Coordinator - Dolores River Boating Advocates, a conservation and recreation minded non-profit based in Dolores, CO, is hiring a 20 hour/week Program...
  • Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a skilled non-profit leader to play a crucial role in protecting the greater Bears Ears landscape. Experience working with government...
  • Clean off, cool off & drink. Multiple spray patterns. Better than you imagine. Try it.
  • Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...