Move out of their territory, or move over and share? Bears aren’t the enemy, but increasing conflicts in urban places are reason to re-examine their threats.
By Michelle Theall
Our float plane tiptoed into the landing dock on a lake near Alaska’s Katmai National Park and I got few instructions before spending the next eight hours strolling interconnected paths winding through a forest alive with bears. I was unarmed and unescorted, with only a camera to shoot. Before sunset, I’d see 30 grizzlies, including unpredictable sows with cubs. Only a handful of rangers monitor Katmai’s 2,000 brown bears and the 25,000 annual visitors who make the summer pilgrimage to see them, yet only two people (Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, from the film Grizzly Man) have been killed in the park’s history.
Back in my home state of Colorado, I read about a bear break-in incident in a neighborhood that straddles the space between rural, Rocky Mountain foothills and downtown Denver. No one was hurt, the bear sauntered off on its own, and the Colorado Department of Wildlife (CDOW) tells the homeowners that they plan to set a trap, tranquilize the bear, and relocate it. The next day, the CDOW captured and euthanized the bear.
I did some research and find out that in 2009 the CDOW killed almost 90 black bears and in 2010 they put down the cubs of a sow that broke into a home in search of food-statistics not uncommon in other states situated in prime bear habitat. Sadness and outrage propel me to ask the question: Why these bears have been destroyed? Public Information Officer, Jennifer Churchill, tells me that the CDOW must euthanize bears that don’t show fear of humans or habituate to easy human-food access points. But the grizzlies in Katmai weren’t afraid of humans. And there, the bears’ lack of fear and close proximity to people didn’t equate to aggression. Kenneth Wilson, who helped investigate bears for a major study in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, confirms that a similar pattern holds true here in Colorado, too. “Garbage bears in one year are not necessarily always garbage bears,” he says explaining that bears prefer wild berry and oak acorn as long as those sources are available.
It seems to me that if the largest land predators on the planet can live in harmony with humans, we might be able to find a way to co-exist with a few berry-loving, 200-pound black bears. I realize that I live adjacent to prime bear habitat. I assume the risks and responsibilities of that. I know it’s possible that I may one day find a bear destroying my kitchen. I will open every door. I will let him leave. And if I am afraid, I won’t allow the CDOW to kill him. I’ll pack up my things and move.
The Other Side
“Bears are naturally afraid of humans,” says Jennifer Churchill of the CDOW, but she continues, “by allowing bears to become habituated we place ourselves, our neighbors, and the bears at risk.” Read Jennifer’s full rebuttal.