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Education key to reducing bear-human encounters

SANDRA CHEREB
Associated Press Writer

LAKE TAHOE ” As black bear populations across North American expand, so too are incidents of human-bear conflicts. But experts agreed on Tuesday that public education campaigns on living in bear country are key to avoiding problems.

“An informed public is the most effective solution to most problems related to bears,” said Jason Holley, a wildlife biologist with California Department of Fish and Game.

Biologists from 25 states, Canada, Mexico and Germany shared status reports on bear populations and discussed challenges of managing bruins to coincide with people and public safety at the 10th Western Black Bear Workshop in Reno.

The workshop, which runs through Thursday, kicked off the same day a 350-pound male bear was captured in Carson City. Wildlife officials said it was the second time in 11 days the bear was captured, but the animal was not considered a nuisance because it was not rummaging through trash or breaking into homes. The animal was tranquilized and will be released back to the wild on Wednesday.

Despite human-bear conflicts, experts said they’ve seen a shift in public attitude on how to deal with problem bears.

“People don’t want to see bears taken out,” Holley said.

Rich Beausoleil of the Washington Department of Fish and Game agreed.

“To me it’s about people management, garbage management and education,” he said.

For the most part, populations are robust and moving into new territories, like some coastal regions of Southern California. In other areas, humans are intruding on traditional bear habitat, leading to conflicts with agricultural, forestry and recreation.

“If you put the food out there, they’re going to go for it,” Holley said.

Years with high incidents of bear conflicts ” such as 2007 in the Lake Tahoe area along the Nevada-California line ” tend to coincide with drought and availability of food, experts said.

That year in Nevada, with an estimated black bear population of 300, the state wildlife agency received more than 1,500 calls about bears. Before 1987, such complaints were basically unheard of, said Carl Lackey, a bear biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

In Alaska, bears and people tend to congregate in the same areas for the same reasons, whether it be at landfills or salmon-packed streams, said biologist Neil Barten.

Brown and black bears will wait at public landfills, he said, to scour trash as soon as it’s discarded. When salmon are running, “the bears learn it’s easier to snag a stringer of fish” from an angler than catch their own.

In 1976, 40 bears considered threats to life or property were killed in Alaska, Barten said. In 2008, a year that included three maulings by brown bears, the number was more than 70.

Barten said recent studies on urban bears tagged with global positioning system collars showed the bruins frequenting many popular recreation sites, including Bicentennial Park in Anchorage.

The findings have officials discussing whether trails should be closed at certain times to avoid human-bear conflicts, he said.

Bear conflicts are not confined to the West. Hank Hristienko, with the conservation agency in Manitoba, Canada, said estimates from 26 eastern U.S. states and six Canadian provinces show a vast majority of bear populations are increasing in size and expanding in their range.

Not surprisingly, he said, almost 80 percent of the eastern side of the continent show an increasing trend in human-bear conflicts.

In Manitoba, he said, complaints about bears are dealt with by “putting the onus back on the source of problem.”

Callers are asked about trash and bird feeders, and told they must remove anything that might attract bears before wildlife experts respond.

“Bird feed is something huge, yet the public isn’t able to grasp,” Hristienko said.

But bird feed, particularly sunflower seeds, are high in calories.

“Bears are like drug addicts,” he said. “Once it gets hooked on sunflower seeds … it’ll hit six or seven feeders, get 20,000 calories, and be quite happy.”


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