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Getting Smart About Bears

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Getting Smart About Bears

By Dave Shishkoff and Sylvia Dolson, Friends of Animals (FOA)
April 2013

We found Whistler our first summer. Returning the next year, we got a newspaper to look for jobs and an apartment, and the front-page story was, “Garbage Bear Destroyed In Village.” And I thought: Why would you kill a bear for eating garbage? Don't we all have a right to eat? That's what brought me down this road.

bear habitatCanadian Correspondent, Dave Shishkoff interviews Get Bear Smart Society Executive Director Sylvia Dolson about living respectfully with bears in Whistler, British Columbia, and elsewhere.

Friends of Animals (FOA): Hi Sylvia! Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got involved with bears.

Sylvia Dolson: Thanks Dave! My background is in accounting, and teaching mathematics and finances. I have a degree in business administration, and was raised in Toronto and lived mostly in London. When almost turning 40, we loaded up a motor home with our two cats and hit the road for two years. One thing we knew for sure was we were not going back home; we were going to find somewhere new to live.

We found Whistler our first summer. Returning the next year, we got a newspaper to look for jobs and an apartment, and the front-page story was, “Garbage Bear Destroyed In Village.” And I thought: Why would you kill a bear for eating garbage? Don't we all have a right to eat?

That's what brought me down this road.

I called up the then-president of the Get Bear Smart Society, who said, “Come out and be part of the solution.” I went to the group’s next meeting and haven't missed a meeting since, and now I'm executive director.

bear habitat(FOA): Tell us a bit about the background of the Get Bear Smart Society.

Sylvia: We're a registered Canadian charity and our mandate is to ensure people and bears can safely and respectfully co-exist. We work with communities to help them become bear-smart, and with governments and policy makers to find cost-effective ways to bear-smart communities. We work with conservation officers and police, training them in non-lethal bear management practices, and advocate those as well. So we work with various levels: with residents in their homes, companies who send employees to work in bear country, and individuals who enjoy recreation in bear country. The point is minimizing the number of bears being killed in preventable conflicts.

Mainly our work is in Whistler, but we share this information with other communities and governments so we don't all have to reinvent the wheel, and there's no charge.

bear habitatUnderlying it all? Creating that paradigm shift in people's attitudes towards bears and all wildlife and animals. Replacing fear and misunderstanding with understanding and respect.

(FOA): So when living in bear country, the main step is keeping our food and scraps inaccessible to them, or even making them undetectable.

Sylvia: Undetectable isn't a good choice of words! A bear's sense of smell is so powerful; we have no conception of how powerful it is. They have 100 times the olfactory glands in their nose, so it's not possible to make our garbage undetectable, but we can make it inaccessible. Bears will eventually give up trying to get access to something they can't gain. They have the intelligence of great apes; people underestimate their intelligence and creativity!

People think if bears can't see the garbage, it's not an issue. But bears don't live in a visual world; they experience the world by scent. I work with Dr. Lynn Rogers in Minnesota, of Bearstudy.org. He was tracking a radio-collared bear, and one day couldn't figure out where she went. He organized a flight, and found her 70 miles away, near Lake Superior, eating acorns that had just ripened. How did she figure that out? She'd never been there before. Rogers had been tracking her for years. Maybe the scent carried that far?

(FOA): Tell us about bear-proof garbage containers.

Containers in Canada’s national parks are generally manufactured by HaulAll of Lethbridge, Alberta. They usually work quite well, although we’ve had to re-design ours. These are the common design issues:

bear habitatOur municipality worked directly with HaulAll to design one that overcame all of those issues. It can fit in large and small spaces and is not too difficult to empty. It does need to be mounted with deadbolts to a concrete slab bigger than the base of the container — to prevent tipping.

Unlike most communities, Whistler has no curbside pick-up. We have two compactor sites where residents take their garbage and recycling. For curbside pick-up communities, totes need to be bear-proof. At least there should be a by-law or ordinance preventing curbside disposal until a couple of hours before pick-up. Other than that it needs to be stored indoors or in a bear-proof enclosure.

Some communities have a communal bear-proof waste system, where large bear-proof containers are conveniently placed throughout the neighborhood so that people can dispose of their waste 24/7. This is the best system. They use it in the national parks and in communities like Canmore, where bears are known to wander.

(FOA): Do you think it's ever okay for bears to wander into our towns and cities?

Sylvia: We need to try hard to keep bears wild, and keep them from anthropogenic food sources. Garbage is just not good for bears. They suffer all kinds of internal damage and injuries from broken glass and other things that get stuck in their intestinal tract, and they can die. And that alone is incentive to keep garbage away.

There are other things they go after, like birdseed, compost and fruit trees. In Whistler, we've asked for the removal of large mountain ash trees surrounding a children's playground. They wouldn’t put garbage in the middle of the playground, but it's also problematic for a bear to be lured by natural food sources like berries.

There's always that chance a bear's predatory instinct might kick in. It's rare, but it might happen, and quite possibly a child might be smacked, or get a nasty bite, and then the bear would be killed, even if the injury was not serious. In these situations, the bear becomes habituated to people, and learns it's okay to eat in people's home ranges, and be near people'sdens, which in the bear world would be very disrespectful: a bear would never go in another bear's den.

They learn this when eating at a bird feeder, and each time they learn that people are being non-threatening, and are rewarded for that behavior with food, they take more liberties — just like people! One day the door is open and a pie is cooling, or whatever it is, and they go in to get it. They don't understand they're going to get shot for that. What does a dead bear learn?

Lines are drawn in the sand: here in Whistler if they go into a home they're shot, but other communities might shoot them on sight.

If a bear shows up on somebody's property, and is shooed away, the bear learns that it's not appropriate to hang around in that yard. Stamp your feet, bang pots and pans, yell “Get out of here!” That's what we need to do. We need to teach bears that it’s unacceptable, for our own safety and for the bear's welfare.

(FOA): So would you say it's safe to shoo away a bear, or bang pots and pans?

Sylvia: There's always potential for harm if you're within slapping or biting distance; and you don't want to have a bear cornered. If you have a bear in your house, you don't want to start banging pots and pans and create more stress for the bear. You want to encourage the bear with less force, and in a slower manner. Encourage them toward the open door or window they entered.

We should tell you to call the wildlife officials. There’s liability involved in telling people to shoo bears from their houses! But I teach officers how to do that, so I'm quite comfortable doing it, and it's not hard at all so long as you give the bear an escape route and don't escalate the situation.

But a bear outside is really easy to shoo off using noise and your own physical presence. Use body posture and a tone of voice that communicates what you want. Bears understand that.

You'll recall from old literature: don't stare at a bear; it's threatening. Well, it is! So that's one tool you can use when a bear is on your home range, or near your den.

I've gone to the landfill, and got them to leave a pile of garbage by standing and staring them down. I've done it several times. It took 10-15 minutes, and eventually I could see their unease, and finally they looked at me and turned around and high-tailed it. So direct eye contact is a powerful tool.

Please make sure you're in a safe position, make sure they have a safe avenue of escape, make sure there isn't a bunch of kids next door having a play-date, or that you're chasing the bear through traffic. You need to be cognizant of what's going on around you, and do it from a safe space. You could be standing right outside your door knowing you could go back inside your house at any moment.

(FOA): Would you say there are ever any legitimate overpopulation issues with bears, or is that view an excuse to go hunting?

Sylvia: I think it always comes down to human-caused conflict: people providing attractants for bears, and people not being willing to accept the responsibility of removing those attractants. It almost always comes back to people being able to solve the problem, and perhaps choosing not to, or not knowing how to.

Overpopulation? We can talk about bear biology. Bears go through courtship and mating mid-May through mid-July. That fertilized egg stays in a state of delayed implantation until they go to den. When they start looking for dens, if they have enough body fat to sustain a pregnancy, then one or more eggs will implant on the uterus wall. If they are not fat enough, the fertilized egg will just be reabsorbed into her body. So if the bear is really fat, she could have up to six cubs, although normally it’s two. If not quite fat enough, she might have one.

How do they get fat? By food availability. In the past, bears did not overpopulate their own habitat. They're designed to sustain their own population by food availability. If there's not as much food, there are not as many cubs, so that natural system doesn't allow for overpopulation. People can affect that, in providing non-natural foods. This creates a slightly larger urban bear population than might be normally sustained in that same habitat, so it comes back to people.

If people want to get rid of urban bears, hunting in the woods does not target those bears.

(FOA): What are your thoughts on human management vs. bear management?

Sylvia: We have to do both, but it certainly starts with people. And so we've now been looking towards community-based social marketing tools to foster sustainable changes in people. We're not there yet. We need to work on changing social norms, to make it unacceptable not to be bear-smart, just as it's unacceptable to get in your car and drive home drunk from a bar or visit someone's home and light up a cigarette.

(FOA): Would you argue against shooting bears in the name of human safety?

Sylvia: Yes. If you shoot a bear, you haven't addressed the root cause, and another bear will move in to access that habitat or niche. It's a cyclical problem, which shooting never resolves.

(FOA): Nature abhors a void, right?

Sylvia: That's right. Five homes in a row have bird feeders? If you kill the bear on that street, another is going to move in. Also, with shooting bears, there's the issue with bear social hierarchy. Say you kill a dominant male, who's been keeping teenage males out of his range. You've just opened yourself up to more than you had before.

(FOA): Do you think we could achieve a no-shooting policy?

Sylvia: We have had zero-kill years in Whistler. It's not the norm, but we have gone through a year with no bears shot because of conflict. Normally it's because natural foods were abundant. Bears don't choose to come into residential areas if they can get food elsewhere.

(FOA): So it looks like we could live peacefully with bears!

Sylvia: Everything is in the realm of possibility. It's our choice: We can see ourselves outside of the eco-system and continue in our selfish ways, or we can consider other animals in our daily lives, and adjust for them.

Then there's the other extreme, with the animal lovers wanting to commune with bears and make bears into pets and feed them on their porch. I know you're not advocating that, but there are probably people in your audience who feel that way. Let them know it's equally destructive; for bears will be shot in the name of public safety. Feeding bears on your porch or backyard, deliberately or with a birdfeeder has the same outcome, even if the intention is not the same.

(FOA): Thank you so much, Sylvia. This has been informative and a real pleasure. Any other thoughts or comments you'd like to share with our readers?

Sylvia: I'm working on my third book: a photo book with inspirational quotes and sayings, and joyful stories elevating bears, as a keystone species that represents all animals and wildlife. I'm just trying to do what you guys do, and elevate non-human animals in the consciousness and the everyday consideration of people as they go about their lives.

MORE INFORMATION: www.BearSmart.com