We’ve been hearing a lot about human-bear conflicts in Vermont. The uptick in reported complaints may be due to Vermont Fish & Wildlife’s relatively new reporting guidelines, new composting laws, and also an influx of out-of-state tourists and new residents who are flocking to Vermont from urban areas due to COVID-19. Many of these folks may not be used to seeing bears. What does all of this mean for bears? What does it mean for us? Polls show that the majority of Vermonters enjoy coexisting with the bears, so how can we mitigate human-bear conflicts?
Bear hunters and hunting lobbyists would love to tell you that picking up our rifles and bows is the obvious solution to solving conflicts, but strangely enough, lethal control has been proven to be one of the most ineffective means of reducing human-bear conflicts. When compared to other forms of conflict management, including improvements to husbandry practices via the use of electric fences and enclosures and also the implementation of auditory and physical deterrents, lethal control has the lowest confidence interval of success. A 2014 study conducted by Martyn E. Obbard and associates set out to test the hypothesis of whether or not human-bear conflict is related to bear population. The biggest correlation the study found regarding conflicts was not between conflicts and bear population, but rather conflicts and the availability of bear’s natural food in that year. The study also found no significant correlation between bear harvests (hunting and killing) and subsequent human-bear conflicts.
Per VT Fish & Wildlife, the bear population in Vermont is not limited by habitat, but rather by what the public will tolerate (biological carrying capacity versus the social carrying capacity). Bears are also slow to reproduce as they only breed every two years. In addition, the pregnancy will only be fruitful if there’s enough food available via a reproductive mechanism called delayed implantation. Despite this, Vermont has one of the longest bear hunting seasons in the country, including the use of hounds, that begins on Sept. 1 and lasts through the first nine days of the November rifle season. In just ten years, 6,000 bears have been hunted and killed in Vermont. Is this killing necessary? In addition to bears killed during the official hunting seasons, upwards of 50 bears have been killed already in 2020 due to them being labeled a “nuisance.” A nuisance bear might be entering chicken coops, damaging bee hives or something as benign as dumpster diving.
Is there another way to coexist with these iconic species? And how much of a threat are bears, really? Historically, black bear attacks on humans are extremely rare. According to a VPR interview with Vermont game warden David Taddei from April 2020 he shared, “We have never had a documented bear attack in Vermont.” We are killing bears on a far, far greater scale than any harm they have done to us. As the bear project leader for Vermont Fish and Wildlife, Forrest Hammond, puts it, “When bears do hurt people, it’s usually the case of getting between the bear and its escape route.”
Since bear populations are limited by what the public is willing to tolerate, it is incumbent upon us to be better bear neighbors. Bears, like most mammals, grow up with their mothers; cubs stay with their mother for about a year and a half. During this time, cubs learn important life lessons, such as how to find a suitable winter den and how to forage for natural food items. The time spent with mom helps cubs be successful wild bears in the future. When we kill bears, it disrupts their natural lifecycle, potentially leaving a cub to grow up without a mother. If sows with cubs are killed, are we potentially creating problems with juvenile bears who may grow up without the important life lessons learned for their mothers?
Now what can we do? People can work with their legislators and encourage them to support more bear-friendly policies and also work within their local communities to enact bear-smart ordinances, since voluntary compliance has been largely unsuccessful. A perfect example of this is people refusing to take down bird feeders in the spring and summer. Bearsmart.com is a fantastic source for more information on how we can implement changes around our homes to help reduce conflicts without killing bears. Management of compost bins, garbage, and proper food storage play important roles in reducing conflicts. Given the crucial benefits these keystone species provide to ecosystems and the mountain of evidence against the efficacy of lethal control, as responsible citizens, we must oppose senseless killing and advocate for compassionate coexistence.