Throughout the early history of bear management many wildlife management agencies experienced significant problems with bear-human conflicts including bear-inflicted human injuries and bear-caused property damages. Almost all bears involved in conflicts with people were conditioned to human foods or garbage. Bears involved in conflicts with people were usually removed from the wild.
From the 1960's through the 1980's many agencies implemented food and garbage storage regulations and sanitation practices that eliminated most of these types of problems. Beginning in the 1990's, some agencies began to experience a new type of bear behaviour that raised concerns for human safety. Bears that were habituated to people, but not conditioned to human foods, began frequenting roadside corridors foraging for native foods. In some areas, habituation without food conditioning is not necessarily detrimental to bears or people. Habituated bears may actually be less prone to act aggressively toward people during surprise encounters, and provide excellent bear viewing and educational opportunities. Habituation also enables bears to access high quality habitat adjacent to roads, habitat that is underutilized by bears that are wary of humans.
In areas where human activity is strictly controlled such as at McNeil River State Game Sanctuary in Alaska, public viewing of habituated bears has been very popular and the management program very successful at preventing bear-inflicted human injuries. People are less strictly controlled in national parks, national forests, and private land with road access.
Although habituated bears typically exhibit very predictable behaviour, recreationists in less controlled situations do not. The unpredictable nature of recreationists in areas with road access increases the potential for habituated bears to come into conflict with people and leads to many different types of management responses to promote human safety (Management of habituated grizzly bears workshop. Missoula, Montana, 2003).
Bears may learn to tolerate people to access natural foods growing in and around developments. Young bears, being at the bottom of the social ladder and on a learning curve, are willing to take risks. Sows with cubs may also choose habitat close to people as a way to avoid adult male bears that may pose a risk to their cubs. Such bears are more likely to enter townsites and campgrounds where they may get into carelessly stored garbage or food.
Bears that associate people, vehicles or facilities with food are usually destroyed. Since habituated bears spend more time near the railway and roads, they are also more likely to be struck and killed on them. Research in Yellowstone National Park indicates that habituated bears are three times more likely to die a human-caused death.
Parks Canada - Sharing the Land with Grizzly Bears »
Bear Management in the Bow Valley
One management option used in the Bow Valley to discourage habituation and the related human caused mortality that often results is aversive conditioning (AC). AC is a non-lethal form of conditioning, using pain and noise stimuli, to promote increased wariness of habituated bears and reduce bear-human interactions.
The Wind River Bear Institute (WRBI), contracted by the Alberta government to assist with managing bear human conflicts in the Bow Valley, has developed a technique, Bear Shepherding, to reduce conflicts between humans and bears and subsequently reduce human caused bear mortalities.
Traditional bear management techniques have been primarily limited to the relocation or destruction of problem bears. Generally these methods treat symptoms and do not eliminate the root causes that create the problem bear’s behaviour.
Bear Shepherding focuses on 2 critical components: preventative and knowledgeable responses by the public and proper teaching and responses of the bears. Using this technique, the behaviours of people and bears are managed by teaching land users how to prevent or reduce conflicts with bears and by teaching bears to avoid situations leading to conflict with humans.
Based on more than 20 years of research and fieldwork by WRBI, Bear Shepherding helps both humans and bears to make the behaviour changes necessary for long-term, safe coexistence.
WRBI uses specially trained Karelian Bear Dogs (KBDs) in combination with other aversive conditioning tools and structured learning situations to teach bears how to recognize and avoid humans and their personal space or “boundaries”. The lessons reverse the learning bears acquire when they successfully locate food by venturing within human boundaries. Bears are taught “on-site” where the conflict occurred whenever possible.
In the case of the Bow Valley, this means discouraging bears from entering municipal boundaries within the Town of Canmore and MD of Bighorn and facilities such as campgrounds and picnic areas. Bears are encouraged to use the designated wildlife corridors and habitat patches that have been designed specifically for large carnivores, providing them the necessary feeding, resting and travelling areas while moving through the Bow Valley. A formal review of the effects of aversive conditioning was completed for Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis Country in 2008.