Relocating Bears Has Its Own Risks: Educating Humans Key To Avoiding Stark Choices

Jun 6, 2017

Credit Molggl Interactive via Flickr/CC

In the wake of a bear family’s relocation after two cubs entered a Hanover household, New Hampshire communities are reconsidering their responsibilities as environmental stewards and asking the question, “What does it take to live with bears?”

John Gregg, a news editor with Valley News in West Lebanon, joined The Exchange to discuss the history of the encroaching Hanover bear family, and why bears might seem to be creeping closer and closer to human areas. Bear appearances have been common in the area for quite some time, Gregg said.

“There was the drought last year, which pushed more bears into human areas. There weren’t as many berries and apples, so they were looking for other food sources,” Gregg said.

Gregg believes there are about 6,000 bears in New Hampshire and 6,000 in Vermont, but Hanover is a special case for bear sightings.

“The situation is a little bit unique to Hanover in one regard, and that is that there’s a large student population. … A large part of the problem is bird feeders, which lots of towns have, but also there’s off-campus housing where trash might be left out in dumpsters. I think suffice it to say that students might not be as fastidious about putting their trash out as long term residents of a town. So, there’s talk of really trying to encourage people to get bear-proof containers to hold trash long term.”

One particular bear family was growing too comfortable with people over a period of a few months, despite many attempts by state officials to discourage the mother, or sow, from roaming the town.  In April, two of the cubs – now adolescents, called “yearlings” – dislodged a screen on a kitchen entryway in a Hanover home. In May, two of the yearlings actually entered a home, which had seven children inside at the time.

After that transgression, N.H. Fish and Game thought the best course of action was to euthanize the bears. A petition with 10,000 backers (from in and out of state) along with a deluge of calls compelled Governor Sununu to intervene and push for relocation of the bears, rather than euthanasia.

But is relocation effective? Often, bears aren’t so easily moved -- at least permanently  -- according to Pete Pekins, UNH Professor of Wildlife Ecology and chair of the Department of Natural Resources; he has conducted several bear research projects since 2000.

“When they [Fish and Game] did translocate bears, we placed radio collars on these bears to determine, one, their survival, and two, where they ended up. And we subsequently went back and removed their radio collars when they went to den. And surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, what we found were 60 percent of adults actually homed back to the capture site. The yearlings, which would be these bears in Hanover, were less prone to do that. But they moved very long distances, and bears that were habituated with human-associated food, many of those ended up in that behavior again. It does appear that adults have much greater homing ability to return, and that may just be because yearling bears don’t have a set home range yet … but all of these bears have become food conditioned, and that’s the real issue. So translocation solves the local problem, but until you solve the food problem, you’re going to have that issue again.”

As for the Hanover bears, although the young bears were relocated, the sow was not captured, so she is presumably still somewhere in the vicinity.  

"It's starting to be breeding season, so the broader concern is, when she has another family of cubs, is she so habituated that she'll bring them back to that neighborhood and say, have at it with the food that's here?" Gregg said. 

And yet, many communities still prefer the relocation option over anything else. Pekins said he conducted a large survey in northern New Hampshire, in which translocation was the number one choice for dealing with bears, even those that had entered people’s homes. Why? Pekins guessed,  “No one wants to be the ‘bad guy' in this.”

Still, Pekins said, entering homes is a red line in most states, "And, in my opinion, for very good reason, because these bears are now very unpredictable." 

I feel the Governor was completely inappropriate in overriding Fish and Game. Andy (Timmins of Fish and Game) knows his job. Let him do it! If any of those bears end up in my house or camp I will shoot them.  -- Exchange listener Rick, in Berlin

Many people enjoy seeing bears in their yards, according to Dave Anderson, director of education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. And the vast majority of bears do not become nuisances.

"What a thrill to see a bear. If I see a squirrel on my porch, I don't go tell everybody at work about it for a week. When I see a bear, I find myself telling people, What a great day -- I saw  a bear today. It's a great indicator of environmental quality in New Hampshire that we have ample habitat to support a population of black bears," said Anderson. 

Still, keeping bears at bay is important, even as we enjoy seeing them, Anderson said. 

Anderson and Pekins agreed that humans bear the responsibility when it came to living with bears -- and that involves deterring the animals’ approach in the first place. In addition to taking trash cans and bird feeders inside, the guests suggested electric fencing for those with livestock, along with rubber bullets and even pyrotechnics. A variety of nonlethal techniques such as these can be used to train bears to refrain from returning.

Pekins said that some towns are taking a more “proactive” approach by enacting wildlife ordinances.

“These ordinances actually tell the residents how you can handle your garbage, and it’s all about reducing conflict with bears. We surveyed these people in these towns, and it was amazing to learn of the support of residents for these ordinances, and their belief that these ordinances do work. We have data out of the town of Lincoln that indicated more than a 50 percent drop in the conflict rate of that town due to just people following the rules about how to handle garbage. There was 90 percent compliance rate by residents, which is really outstanding. That’s higher than the recycling rate in any community. But on the other hand, there was only 30 percent compliance rate by commercial ownerships. And, again … there’s nothing a bear can’t get into unless you deter them from it. So it will take some monetary investment for companies to prevent this kind of situation.”

Towns like these are exploring a variety of techniques in order to “learn to live with bears,” said Pekins, quoting what he said is a tag line of NH Fish and Game. However, both guests agreed that an ordinance is not always necessary to change the behavior of a community.

Exchange listener Carla, from Berlin, said a bear has been roaming her neighborhood, without incident.

We figure he's about 250 pounds. He's been around the neighborhood for the last two months. Everybody around here is pretty good about putting their garbage out only when the city says to. In fact, we just got a notification with our tax bills about when we should and shouldn't put garbage out and the fines and penalties for not doing it. And this guy has been around for a couple years. He's no big deal. If he comes into my yard and my cats are out, they'll puff themselves up and walk sideways and he'll generally leave....He's come into our yard, he's come into our neighborhood, he's walked down our street, but then so have the moose and the deer. 

Anderson said that education would play a key part in the solution.

“Coexistence is possible through human education, and that’s the middle way, and that’s the most promising way. Because the stark choices are either translocating bears who will get into trouble later, or destroying those bears, which overwhelmingly Pete [Pekins] has taught me people do not want to see. So the middle way to coexist is to educate ourselves like those communities of Lincoln and like the folks in Berlin are doing, and then they can appreciate the bears that they have.”

Some bear facts:

"The longest distance between anywhere you might release a bear and humans is about 30 miles," says Pete Pekins. "And that's nothing to a bear to travel... In that first week after they've been relocated they move many many miles. They're basically searching for something that's a little more comfortable."

Bears can smell in technicolor, says Dave Anderson. "I have seen postings online of bears digging into the wall of a barn to get at chickens because they can smell them in there. Their eyesight isn't that great. Their memory of the landscape is profound."

Dogs as deterrents against bears can be problematic: A dog can keep bears away just with their barking. But dogs can also cause a sow to get aggressive if it gets between her and her cubs. "Giving them space and an exit, they will opt to get away from people and dogs," says Dave Anderson. "I think dogs escalate the threat and change the dynamic in favor of the people and that puts the bear in an uncomfortable position and if they separate sows from cubs, that's a problem." 

You can hear the full conversation on bears in our back yards here