Making bears fearful to save their lives; Scare tactics tried to avoid people trouble

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When a 300-pound black bear breaks into your mountain cabin, eats your cookies and raids your refrigerator, you have several options.

You could call state wildlife authorities and ask them to please come pick up the errant bear and carry him away to the real wilderness. Or, you could demand that they blast the burglarious bruin into the next life.

But increasingly, wildlife managers and police officials are trying a third option -- turning the bear's visit into such a waking nightmare that it will forever after link people with fear, not food.

In Mammoth Lakes, Calif., former hunter and trapper Steve "Bear Man" Searles flushes bears from the ski town's porches and trash bins by launching shrieking firecrackers at them. Then he fires rubber bullets or bean bags from shotguns to give the bears a hard kick in the rump as they flee. To make sure the bears connect their terror with people, Searles hauls his lanky, 6-foot-4-inch frame onto his truck, waves his arms and hollers: "You bad bear! Get the hell out of here! Go home! Go home!"

Not one for half-measures, he urinates on the bears' picnic spot to mark it as his territory -- not theirs.

Sure it's harassment. But a growing number of wildlife experts call it "aversion conditioning" and are adopting it to retrain "problem" bears to stay away from people.

"If we can keep them from breaking into people's houses and hanging around and napping in gardens, then people hopefully will not have a reason to say 'Come and kill them,' " said Ann Bryant, a co-founder of Lake Tahoe's Bear Preservation League. The group was organized last year to try nonlethal deterrents after several problem bears were shot.

Aversion conditioning is being tried in many places where swelling populations of black bears and people are running into each other. It is a popular topic among wildlife biologists, some of whom doubt it works. Several studies are under way to answer that question.

Sometimes it works

In hilly northwestern New Jersey, where there have been 1,500 bear complaints this year, state fish and game officials say they have trapped, "conditioned" and released 19.

"Does it work? Yeah, in some cases," said Tony McBride, an assistant wildlife biologist with the New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife. "But with sows that are food-conditioned, it can be very difficult to get them to change their ways." Four New Jersey bears have been shot dead this year.

Maryland has tried aversion conditioning twice. The results of each were mixed, but wildlife authorities say they are "encouraged."

Black bears are the most common of North America's three species. About 700,000 live in 40 states and Canada. Their numbers are stable or increasing in 35 states.

Though smaller and less aggressive than their grizzly and polar cousins, adult black bears can weigh from 125 to 600 pounds and stand 5 to 7 feet tall on their hind legs. To build the fat they need to carry them through winter, black bears may forage 20 hours a day in late summer and fall, eating nearly anything for the calories they need -- up to 20,000 a day.

Bears are smart, strong and opportunistic. In the wild, they like berries, acorns and other nuts, insects and carrion. But if people leave easier pickings -- crops, bird seed, pet food, garbage or campground wieners -- they'll grab those first.

Tom Anderson, author of "Black Bear: Seasons in the Wild," recalled a family in northern Minnesota that moved its dog's food onto a breezeway to foil a bear. The bear broke in, ate the dog food, then ripped the padlocked lid off a nearby freezer and had a feast.

Deputy Sheriff Patrick Harris of El Dorado County, Calif., remembers a sow that lifted a commercial trash bin lid and dropped her cub inside. "He was throwing food out to feed the mother," he said.

Yosemite National Park sees more than 1,000 bear break-ins a year. Black bears have smashed car windows and ripped through the rear seats to reach the trunk and open a food-filled cooler. One bear did $1,000 in damage to a car to get to a candy wrapper.

Trouble with outsiders

Longtime residents of the Lake Tahoe area have come to know the bears and seem to get along. They say it's newcomers and vacationers who get bears in trouble.

Bryant recalled a light-colored black bear named "Blondie" that frequented the lakeside community of Meeks Bay. Last year, she said, "construction workers were bringing extra sandwiches for him and hand-feeding him. They would pet him. He was totally tame."

When winter came and the contractors left, Blondie kept looking for meals in town. And when he found a vacant summer house with a broken window, he climbed in. Stuck inside when the wind slammed a door shut, Blondie learned to open the refrigerator. "He opened every can in the house and made a horrible mess," Bryant said. Four days later, he chewed his way out.

After that, Blondie broke into cabin after cabin -- sometimes two a day. He clawed his way through the screens on open doors and windows, often when the owners were home. He feasted on chocolate pudding, strawberry pie and peanut butter.

He also became a marked bear. When people are at risk or property is damaged, California wildlife authorities will issue a depredation permit on request. Trappers are called in to capture the bear and kill it.

When Blondie picked the wrong cabin, that was the end of Blondie.

The state does not move black bears, said Lt. Ken Nilsson, a California Fish and Game officer for the Tahoe area. "We found all that will do is move the problem."

Outrage over killing

Bryant's Bear Preservation League was born a year ago out of public outrage after the killing of a burglarious female and her cub. With 120 trained volunteers and the cooperation of state and local authorities, the league became the first responder in March to up to 200 local complaints.

Bryant's volunteers tell callers how to bear-proof their homes. They have also made more than 50 house calls. "I go charging at [the bears], and growling at them and playing loud music," Bryant said.

League members also unleash an industrial-strength pepper spray. "We bought cases of that -- big canisters made for grizzlies," Bryant said. Sprays brewed for people are like condiments to bears; they lick it off.

Only deputies will be allowed to use the newly acquired rubber bullets and pyrotechnics.

As big and hungry as they are, black bears -- unlike grizzlies -- are rarely aggressive. Only 35 human deaths have been blamed on black bears in this century, according to the North American Bear Center. Seventeen times more people have been killed by spiders.

Even when the bruins rear up and snap their teeth, Bryant said, "they don't scare me. They've always run."

But the dangers of close contact are clear. Harris said, "I went to a call where a mother bear and her cub were walking around and a small child was running up to try to pet the cub."

But does "aversion conditioning" work?

Searles, whose techniques have attracted international media attention, insists he's retrained Mammoth Lakes' bears. "They won't touch your car, or your ice chest, or come in your home or cabin," he said. "They respect people." And none has been shot since the program began.

Others have had a mixed experience with the technique.

Jon Beckmann, a conservation biologist at the University of Nevada, said his study of aversion conditioning suggests that most bears can't be retrained.

"If you get the bears on their first few visits, [aversion conditioning] will probably have a better shot," he said. "But if the bear has been in garbage most of its life, it's not effective."

New Jersey wildlife authorities had to destroy a bear last year after she continued to raid cars and tents at High Point State Park despite two rounds of aversion conditioning.

In the end, retraining humans may be more effective.

In Garrett County last year, a female black bear and her cubs were dining regularly in a trash bin behind an Oakland grocery store. Steve Bittner of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources said the mother bear was captured then released with a blast of pepper spray and rubber buckshot. She stayed away for about two months, then she came back.

So, "we worked with the grocery store and had them secure the Dumpster," he said. The bear was not a problem again.

Since Mammoth Lakes businesses replaced all but 90 of their 350 trash containers with bear-proof models, bear fertility rates have plunged. With less to eat, bears have produced fewer cubs. The numbers dropped from 14 five years ago to three this year.

People in the Tahoe area are learning to cope with their bears, too. Permits to kill misbehaving bears have dropped from 54 in 1995 to 16 this year. "I attribute that to the education function that the Bear Preservation League folks are doing," Nilsson said.

Norma Anderson has learned her lesson. She called the league last month after a 5-foot-tall black bear clambered through an open window of her Tahoe cabin, swiped a milk carton from the refrigerator and chocolate chip cookies from the counter.

"Now I make sure I don't go off without closing the window," Anderson said. "This is in the mountains, after all. That's where they live."

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