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Teaching Bears? People Do It All The Time...

Fish & Wildlife

Friday, May 31, 2002

"Hello, Tim? This is the Flathead County Sheriff's Office. We have a report of a grizzly bear at a private residence in the North Fork."

The bear had been coming to eat birdseed the last few nights. Tonight it was trying to dig under a dog-kennel fence...with three Saint Bernard dogs barking in its face. The landowner was tired of the bear, and now he was afraid for his dogs.

I turn and look at the clock. 2:36 a.m. It's going to be a long day.

October 1997 in the North Fork was busy bear wise. In two weeks I captured, radio collared and relocated four different grizzly bears in conflict with people. These bears didn't suddenly decide to switch from eating natural foods to raiding garbage cans. They had been rewarded for years for being around homes and obtaining birdseed, dog food and horse grain. Teaching bears? People do it all the time, usually unknowingly.

It has been four years since those four grizzly bears were captured. In that time, I've worked with Carrie Hunt of the Wind River Bear Institute on a new approach. We use aversive conditioning (rubber bullets, cracker shells and Karelian Bear Dogs) to reverse what these bears have already been taught about humans and food. Instead of a good place to get food, the house becomes an unpleasant place to avoid. Equally important is teaching people who live around bears to recognize what they do to attract grizzlies to their homes and to convince them to stop making food rewards available.

What we did had never been tried before. We quickly learned that to succeed in teaching the bears, we had to succeed in teaching people. Truly a daunting task.

The complete stories of what happened to these bears are a book, but here is a summary.

Two young bears that were twins, the "Polebridge twins," have dropped their radio collars, but we believe they are still alive today and staying out of trouble. We felt these bears truly learned to change their behaviors. A success on our part.

The third grizzly was a young male, the offspring of the bear digging under the dog kennel fence. This young male learned to eat at people's homes from his mother as a cub. He didn't know any differently. He continued his pattern and was illegally killed the fall of 1998 along the main North Fork Road. The case is still under investigation.

The fourth grizzly, the adult female digging under the dog kennel that night at 2:30 a.m., reverted to breaking into structures. Both she and her male cubs had to be captured and removed to a University Research facility in the fall of 2000 to live out the rest of their lives. As you can see, we had mixed results.

We've learned we can teach some bears with the right tools and enough manpower, but not all. The big question remains... can we teach people to do their part in preventing bears from learning these bad habits in the first place, or from relearning them?