HELENA - Bear jams aren’t just for Montanans anymore.
From the swimming pools of New Jersey to the suburbs of Orlando, Fla., black bears have become a continentwide challenge for wildlife managers. This week, 300 of them have converged on Missoula for the fourth International Human-Bear Conflicts Workshop.
“Bear managers are becoming victims of their own success,” said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Bears are expanding their range, and we know what happens then. People are asking, ‘How many do you guys want? Do you expect us to be tolerant of these bears all the time?’ ”
Servheen said longtime residents have shown willingness and interest in adapting to bears. But as new subdivisions push farther and farther into bear habitat and bring new, inexperienced residents, the conflicts and education process start all over again.
“In most cases, bear managers can’t keep up with the leading edge,” Servheen said. “They don’t know where bears are going to show up next.”
Shannon Downey of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Kalispell compared the problem to teaching people about wildfire protection. While the threat differs, the victims are the same – inexperienced newcomers who live on the boundary of civilization and the backcountry. And they move in and out so much, Downey said, she assumes every five years the entire community needs re-education on the risks and best behavior.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park biologist Bill Stiver said his area had success going after bears at night. The 500,000-acre park gets more visitors a year than any other in the United States, putting 10 million tourists in close contact with roughly 1,500 black bears.
“We make decisions based on night activity rather than day activity,” Stiver said. “Bears coming around a campground at night are still afraid of people. If you do something negative to them – trap them, tranquilize them, tag them – it helps put the fear of people back into them.”
It also means a lot more evening and night work for the seasonal staff, Stiver acknowledged. And staffing challenges were a common theme at the conference.
In New Jersey, Department of Fish and Game supervising wildlife biologist Pat Carr said the bear population had grown from about 100 animals in the 1970s to more than 3,500 now. And the state’s efforts to zone for open space and dispersed homesites in rural areas actually created great habitat for bears willing to live among people.
“We have some female bears whose whole home range is within a single, small neighborhood,” Carr said. “We’re packing them in tightly and causing lots of conflicts.”
Social and political pressures play a big part in New Jersey bear management, he added. Bear hunting has helped control population numbers and problem bears, but the voting public has frequently opposed it. Electric fencing has proved effective in keeping bears out of beehives and chicken coops, but some communities have banned the fences because people keep getting zapped by them.
In Aspen, Colo., Kevin Wright of the Colorado Division of Wildlife said, a rule requiring round doorknobs has made a big difference.
“We have black bears that go around the house and slap every handle until they find a door that’s open,” Wright said.
In years when natural food supplies fail, the little community can have 20 to 25 reported bear break-ins a night. Residents also use electrified mats and boards studded with nails below their windows and doors to keep bears out.
Alaska, naturally, has even bigger bear problems. But even there, the challenge varies by location.
Jessy Coltrane of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game manages bears in the municipality of Anchorage, which includes giant state parks and national forests, as well as a city of almost 300,000 people. A popular park on the edge of the city has a trail called Rover Run.
“We want to rename it to ‘Run, Biker, Run,’ ” Coltrane said, referring to an incident when an endurance race biker T-boned a brown bear on the trail.
“We’re also seeing an urban chicken craze,” Coltrane said. “I don’t understand people who won’t shoot a bear over a garbage can, but they will shoot a bear over the chicken they paid 50 cents for.”
That was minor for Jason Herreman, who manages polar bears in the North Slope Borough, which covers the northern quarter of Alaska. With a warming climate shrinking sea ice pack, polar bears are hunting and prowling much closer to shore than in the past. Native communities that hunt whales now have to butcher them much closer to their homes, and that also brings the bears closer.
“Polar bears are a little different from the bears you guys deal with,” Herreman said. “They jump. They can easily top a standard 3 1/2-foot electric fence. We suggest anyone working in polar bear country get a higher electric fence.”
Herreman also said the closer polar bears have attracted a bump in tourist numbers – many of whom don’t understand the risks. One party flew a plane onto the ice near a whale butchering site. A couple of polar bear cubs started using their plane as a plaything, bending the airframe out of shape. The tourists spent an unplanned extra week waiting for a repair crew to rebuild their plane.
The conference has attracted hundreds of bear researchers, biologists, game wardens and other interested parties, filling three ballrooms at the DoubleTree Hotel. In addition to much of the United States, participants also came from Canada, Japan, Slovakia and Finland.
Last week, a Wyoming rancher reported losing a calf to a bear kill. As bears come out of hibernation, the calls to bear managers will start ringing as well.
“It’s going to be 24/7, weekends and holidays,” Servheen said. “That means this meeting may be the only respite bear managers have between now and December.”