The bear came in the afternoon.
Having learned that neighborhoods contained a bounty of high-calorie foods, the bear had abandoned its natural wariness of people in exchange for easy meals. Bird seed, hummingbird nectar, domestic plums and garbage were so much easier to obtain than berries, grasses and insects, found by foraging as its mother had taught.
At first, seeing the bear in their yard was both novel and exciting to the family. What a thrill to be able to see a wild animal up close. Who can blame them? Black bears are one of Colorado’s most magnificent animals, and getting to see one, to many, is still one of the biggest perks of living here.
But then the family grew concerned. The bear was coming around daily now and had gone from innocently sniffing around the yard to getting into unsecured trash next to the garage, lapping up sugar water from a hummingbird feeder off the back deck and peering into windows.
The predictable climax came when the bear showed up that afternoon. Having recently torn down the bird feeders, it was now ripping the screen off a window and trying to chew through the frame as the concerned homeowners frantically called wildlife officials.
After shooing the bear away, the family, not wanting the bear to come to harm, asked what many do: “Can’t it just be taken away?”
Seems sensible, right? Haul the bear deep into the woods, far from people and homes, where it can’t cause more problems.
Perhaps a Disney movie would play out that way, but in reality, bears aren’t taken to a happy place, and relocating bears isn’t the solution many think it is.
Bear relocation has long been a staple in wildlife management, despite some state wildlife agencies moving away from the practice due to low success rates.
Over a decade ago, bear managers were surveyed and asked about the effectiveness of relocation as a management tool. Although 75% of the agencies relocated bears, only 15% thought the practice effective.
Often met with limited success, relocation, however, can still have a place, mainly with young bears yet to establish home ranges and adaptable to being unceremoniously dumped in unfamiliar environs.
But for many bears, relocation simply draws out the inevitable. Many are dead within weeks of being moved, either killed by other bears or by vehicles in attempts to return home. Most good bear habitat is already occupied by other bears, and relocated bears are at a huge disadvantage in not knowing locations of food and water. They get pushed around by resident bears, are put through great stress, struggle to survive and often resort to either quickly returning to what they know or resuming unwanted behavior.
There may not be a better example of the potential shortcomings of bear relocation than Bear 75, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s most famous bear.
Bear 75 was a large adult male that rummaged through garbage carelessly left behind by park visitors. He eventually became so food-conditioned and comfortable feeding at a particular campground that park rangers determined he needed to be moved.
The first attempts at relocating him within the park were all for naught. Bear 75 was back, usually within a few days. This led to more drastic measures.
Rangers relocated Bear 75 to the southern border of Tennessee. He returned to the park, walking right through the middle of towns in making his way home.
He was moved to the northern border. He returned.
He was moved to Virginia. He returned.
They took him nearly to the Maryland border. After hundreds of miles making a bee-line back to his Tennessee home, he met his demise, shot in an urban backyard.
Countless similar tales can be told by every bear manager that has ever relocated bears.
Most importantly, relocation merely addresses the bear while dismissing the root cause of conflict. Whether a bear is moved or not, human foods at that location would still need to be addressed. New bears would otherwise simply fill the void left by relocated bears, and a new cycle of bears utilizing human foods, and subsequent conflict, would begin.
Bears get blamed and wildlife officials criticized. But, every trap set to capture a bear is a direct reflection on residents, neighborhoods and communities at large.
Relocation is a tool, but on its own, not the answer. It’s the responsibility of residents to not allow bears to develop bad habits that put bears, and people, at harm in the first place.
Bryan Peterson is the executive director of Bear Smart Durango (www.bearsmartdurango.org). Daryl Ratajczak is a former bear coordinator, chief of wildlife with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and a wildlife instructor at www.wildlifeforyou.com.