Having Good Bear Sense - Loving and Protecting NH's Bears

BEAR AND HUMAN CONFLICTS - A NEED FOR CHANGE

By Andrew Timmins, N.H. Fish and Game Bear Biologist

It seems that people in New Hampshire may not be taking the old adage "A Fed
Bear Is a Dead Bear" seriously enough these days. Recent events across the
state involving the feeding of bears show a trend that has serious
consequences for both communities and bears.

In 2006, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department established a rule (FIS
310.01) that prohibits a person from feeding bears, either intentionally or
inadvertently, given that doing so causes nuisance situations, results in
property damage and can become a human safety concern. Not directly
mentioned in the rule language, but of equal importance, is the fact that
feeding bears habituates bears to humans and essentially eliminates, or
severely alters, the natural behavior and foraging patterns of bears.

Since 2006, Fish and Game has addressed a number of intentional bear feeding
sites around the state, at some of which people had been feeding bears for
over 20 years. Collectively, staff from the U.S. Department of Agriculture -
Wildlife Services, Fish and Game Wildlife Biologists and Conservation
Officers have worked hard to identify intentional feeding sites and try to
help people who are feeding to understand the serious consequences of this
practice. Some have been cooperative, others, less so. People who are
feeding bears are initially asked to stop via a formal warning. If they fail
to stop, they are then in violation of FIS 310.01 and may be issued a
summons. In many instances, a formal warning, coupled with education, has
been effective. This year, however, this sensible approach doesn't seem to
be working as well.

During the first week of May, Fish and Game discovered four historical
feeding sites in New Hampshire where intentional bear feeding has resumed,
despite previous formal warnings being issued. One site in particular,
located on West Side Road in North Conway, has been particularly challenging
for bear managers. In the area known as Birch Hill, bears highly habituated
to human food have been breaking into motor vehicles, garages, sheds, and
killing livestock. Fish and Game has been forced to destroy two bears at
this location in one week that were destroying property of posing a human
safety concern. The scat of these animals has been full of both black oil
sunflower seed and cracked corn, suggesting purposeful feeding. This
prompted Fish and Game to investigate an historical feed site located within
a half mile of the location where the bulk of the conflicts were occurring.
The resident had been previously warned to cease feeding, but had resumed
the activity in spring of 2014.

The decision to kill these animals was not an easy one and not taken
lightly. However, there were few other options for these bears, for a
variety of reasons. The less developed northern part of the state, where
bears are typically released when translocated, is still covered in snow,
offering no natural food.

The behavior of these animals and the fact that the conflicts were becoming
more severe with time forced a response. Both bears were large adult males,
which tend to have strong fidelity to their home range and therefore would
likely have returned very quickly if moved. In my opinion, these bears had
essentially been "ruined" by intentional feeding and human habituation. They
had lost the ability to be wild bears that avoid human-occupied areas.

Intentional backyard feeding is not the only problem. A number of locations
around the state experience bear/human conflicts each and every year. Most
are areas with open or plastic-topped dumpsters (not bear proof), unsecured
household garbage, bird feeders or unprotected poultry and livestock.
Despite working with these residents year after year, things never seem to
change. Why is that? Why are bears so devalued by some members of the public
that they refuse to change their own behavior? Why is there an expectation
by some members of the public that Fish and Game should remove or kill the
bear, so that people are not inconvenienced by the need to change their
behavior?

Without support and assistance from the public, Fish and Game lacks the
ability to significantly change human behavior and reduce bear/human
conflicts. We can't force restaurant owners to use locking, steel-top
dumpsters. We can't make people put electric fence around their chickens. We
can't force people to stop feeding birds during spring and summer. We can't
mandate the appropriate storage of garbage and other food attractants by
homeowners so that they are inaccessible to wildlife. All of these are
examples of relatively simple, effective, commonsense solutions. We can't
convince people not to selfishly feed bears, despite the detriment to the
animal, if we are not informed of the location. We can't challenge people's
constitutional right to shoot bears that cause property damage, despite the
refusal of the landowner to even attempt to mitigate the conflicts. I find
this very discouraging, because we are so fortunate to have this magnificent
wild animal in our state.
Isn't it worth changing your own behavior just a little, so they can live
here, too?

We have been trying to get this message out for many years. Most residents
and visitors of New Hampshire are familiar with Fish and Game's educational
campaign "Something's Bruin in New Hampshire - Learn to Live with Bears."
This campaign began in the mid-1990s and was designed to educate the public
on bear behavior and provide proactive steps that the public could follow to
avoid conflicts with bears. Essentially, it was hoped that if the public
better understood bears, perhaps human tolerance towards bears would
increase. One common message from this campaign is the slogan "A Fed Bear is
a Dead Bear" -- a straightforward way of saying that allowing bears to
become habituated to human environments and dependent on human-related foods
has severe, and often fatal negative effects on the animal.

This education campaign has helped the public better understand the behavior
of bears and has reduced conflicts. However, the recent incidents in which
I've had to dispatch bears because of stubborn human behavior is making me
lose faith. Is the public even listening anymore? Is our society that
self-centered and callous towards the wildlife of our state?

The next time you are reviewing a friend's photos of a sow with cute cubs
lying next to a pile of feed in their back yard, think about the
consequences for the bear, and her cubs, who are learning behaviors that may
result in their future death. When you see a dumpster with muddy paw prints
on the side and garbage strewn through the woods, think long and hard about
that image. Is that how you picture New Hampshire's majestic black bear? The
next time you hear about Fish and Game biologist climbing to the top of a
tree to remove cubs because the sow was shot at an unsecured chicken pen,
ask yourself if that was a reasonable resolution to a conflict.

If you find these questions provoking, please lend your support and
assistance. Follow the Something's Bruin guidelines at
http://www.wildlife.state.nh.us/Wildlife/Somethings_Bruin.htm. Talk to your
friends and neighbors and encourage them to be proactive in preventing
conflicts with bears. Get active within your community and work for change.
Change may be hard but it is not impossible. It's our own human behavior
that creates these conflicts, and therefore it is our own behavior that
needs to be modified.

Copyright 2014 New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, 11 Hazen Drive,
Concord, NH 03301.

sitting bear