Coexistence – what does it really mean?

Last week a mother black bear and her 2 cubs were darted in downtown Canmore and relocated east of here. What were they doing in town? Feasting on fruit trees in people’s yards. My local paper has done a great job in the past two weeks explaining what happened and following up (Bear and Cubs Relocated From CanmoreFruit Trees an Issue with Canmore Bear Management). This sequence of events isn’t new to Canmore and it ruffles my feathers every time.

But… what’s the big deal?

Remember relocation means trapping a bear too - tranquilizing it, and moving it. That can be traumatic all on its own.

Remember relocation means trapping a bear too – tranquilizing it, and moving it. That can be traumatic all on its own.

The Reality of Relocation

Some people have this skewed images of what it means to relocate a bear. In the words of one of my colleagues:

They think when we relocate a bear that we drop it off in some kind of bear utopia where there is plenty of food and no people and the bear just lives out the rest of its days in peace and everything is perfect.

The reality is far different than that. My one supervisor likened relocating a bear to taking a person, dropping them off in some random foreign country with no money, no map, no food, no concept of the language, and just saying: “Ok. This is your home now. Good luck.”

When relocating a bear, we want to make sure it’s taken far enough away to not find its way back. But how far is that? Should the bear be dropped off at the far reaches of its home range, or should it be transported out of its home range? Return rates have been found to decrease with distances over 75 Km, but that may not be the case in every ecosystem or for every bear.

Willmore 026

Imagine just grabbing this little guy in the middle of his lunch – tranquilized, trapped and relocated. And then he wakes up in the bear equivalent of Timbuktu.

Regardless of the distance it’s moved, a relocated bear has a low chance of survival (less than 50%). Other research has shown that relocated bears have increased rates of travelling and decreased rates of eating for several years after being relocated; they are spending all their time looking for food and not enough time eating it.

The other challenge for a bear arriving in a new home is understanding the threats.  When a bear gets dropped off in the middle of nowhere it has to figure out what the dangers are and where they are or it won’t survive long. These dangers could be roads and traffic or hunters, but the biggest danger of all is other, more dominant bears who already know the landscape and have a keen interest in keeping it for themselves.

A Mother and 2 cubs

Going back to the female black bear with 2 cubs that was recently moved east of Canmore. She has been relocated from a home range that:

  • was surrounded by a community with a fairly high tolerance of bear activity
  • was largely comprised of protected areas
  • had little to no industrial activity
  • where she knew who and where the dominant males were and knew how to keep her cubs safe from them

To a home range that:

  • is nearer communities that are may be less tolerant of bears
  • is potentially already occupied by other bears, and where she doesn’t know who or where the dominant males are
  • is completely new and unknown to her
  • is largely outside of protected areas
  • has industrial activity (oil and gas; forestry; agriculture)
  • has a higher road density than she’s used to

All of these factors make it more and more likely that both her and cubs will not survive beyond 3 years. It’s a sad truth.

But what frustrates me is that it’s completely unnecessary… if we just didn’t have fruit trees in town.IMG_1014

Coexistence – what it really means

The simplest solution is to problem is just not have fruit trees in town. If the food isn’t here, bears won’t stay in town to eat it.

Some people suggest that some fruit is native and part of the bear’s natural diet and having those kinds of trees shouldn’t be a problem because they belong here. But it is a problem because the bear is eating in town. Bears in town become habituated to people and/or food conditioned – expecting people to provide their food source. Habituated bears and food conditioned bears become dangerous and are eventually killed in the name of protecting human safety.

At the end of the day, a bear eating in town is not good, regardless of what it is eating exactly.

In the bear world, we talk about Attractant Management, and that means managing all things that a bear might get into and eat from bird feeders to compost to garbage to fruit trees. As another colleague told me:

We recognize that bears are going to come into town, we live on an urban-wilderness interface. We just don’t want them to have any reason to hang out when they get here. When they come into town, we want them to see there is nothing for them here and to just keep going. 

To me, that’s one of the fundamental pieces of coexistence. We recognize we are sharing space with bears and we’re ok with that; but we’re going to take steps to ensure that we’re not directly sharing space for too long or in a way that becomes dangerous for either people or bears. There are many ways that coexistence shapes our lives when we live in a town that is adjacent to or in bear habitat.

What’s the bigger picture?

While the bears are wandering around the forest looking for food in the fall, they are focused almost entirely on eating. Time is running out, they’ll be hibernating soon and they’ve got to consume as many calories as possible. Bears don’t just magically transport themselves to the fruit trees in town, they have to walk here. My research is really looking at how they do that. How do grizzly bears navigate this landscape in search of food? Do they use human use trails? How often? Where? (If you’ve read some of my previous blog posts, you may know some of my ideas on this already).

On Tuesday, September 8 at 7pm at the Canmore Collegiate High School Theater I will be presenting some of my preliminary research results that attempt to address some of these larger questions. When and where are bears on the same trails as people? I’m beyond excited because this will be my first presentation of my research in my hometown and I think it’s going to be a great evening.

I’ve partnered with CPAWS Southern Alberta (event listing on CPAWS website) and Wildsmart to host this little evening about bears. I’m going to present my research results, but there will also be plenty of time for community discussion about how to coexist with bears. Some of my volunteers will also be there and we’ll share some great ways to volunteer on various bear related projects in the Bow Valley. It’ll be a great evening about people and bears – coexisting for real.

I hope to see you there!

Some of my most intrepid and dedicated volunteers! Smiles all around!

Some of my most intrepid and dedicated volunteers! Smiles all around!

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