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
  • Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • Crested Butte Land Trust seeks a development director to lead its fundraising efforts. Remote and unspoiled, Crested Butte is located in one of the Rockies...
  • 5-Acre Home Site, Great Views with Spectacular Sunsets From a South Facing Home Site. Excellent for Passive Solar Design. Covenants, No HOA. Keller Williams Co....
  • 3 bed/2 bath, detached strawbale building. 11.7 acres, barn, corrals, fenced. Wells, solar panels, greenhouses. Paved access. 575-535-2568.
  • WildEarth Guardians seeks two public interest-focused staff attorneys with a minimum of 5 years experience to join our legal team. Experience with at least some...
  • The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is seeking an Executive Director, a visionary leader who is passionate about public lands, dedicated to executing an innovative strategic...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Customer Service Specialist I General Statement of Duties: Works closely with the customer service manager performing high-volume routine computer database work. Also...
  • We are hiring a Finance Associate Full time, competitive pay and benefits, based in Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • The Aravaipa Land Steward coordinates preserve stewardship work and general operations including maintenance and general preserve management. Implements preserve management plans, which may include species...
  • seeks a talented and dynamic development professional, with a passion for protecting our natural environment, to lead our development and fundraising team.
  • The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society seeks an Executive Director in Denver, CO to serve as the Chief Administrator of the national Native American...
  • NewTowncarShare News seeks a development assistant to assist with fundraising campaigns. HCN is an award-winning, national news magazine. Strong candidates will have experience administering...
  • Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • Needed: instructor with 5 years *documented* instruction experience, current qualifications, M-410 or equivalent, and able to work as-needed for NM non-profit working with at-risk youth.
  • Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...