August 8, 2012

Bears. They are a part of our wilderness

Bears.  They are a part of our wilderness
.  We love to see them and most of us can immediately recall the last time we saw a bear, including the time, the setting and what the bear did.  Most of the time, when we see a bear in Baxter Park, it’s a quick peek at the disappearing hind end of a running bear.  Unfortunately, every now and then, seeing a bear in the Park is not such a great experience - we get a a much too “up close and personal” experience and our interaction with the bear is too long, too unnatural and not what we hope for and expect.  These negative bear sightings involve what bear researchers call a “food-conditioned” bear.  This term refers to a bear that, for a variety of reasons, has become accustomed to humans and associates humans with successful experiences at securing food.  This is not a good thing for Park visitors and especially not a good thing for the bear. 

Food conditioned bears have long been a persistent problem at most popular campsites in large parks and forests in the U.S., including local areas like the White Mountain N.F. and the Adirondack Park.  In fact, in comparison to almost all similar recreational campgrounds in the eastern U.S., the Park has been blissfully free of food-conditioned or “nuisance” bears.  The unusual status of the Park is in part due to the fact that dumpsters have not been a part of campground operations in the Park for two decades (many bear generations) and Park visitors have complied with our “Carry In - Carry Out” philosophy.  While these management actions may explain some of our long history of wild bear behavior, it doesn’t explain it all, as food storage in our front country campgrounds is not that secure, and food is often out and available to hungry bears. 

Recently, first I 2009 and then again this summer, we have found our campgrounds on the circuit of a food – conditioned bear.  We cannot be sure if these bears lost some of their fear of humans and developed their campground food foraging habits due to the actions of Park visitors and staff, or if they learned them elsewhere and brought them to us, but the effect is the same - a bear that once was a fleetingly glimpsed wild creature is now ambling around in the campground, approaching people, tearing into unattended coolers, backpacks, tents and the occasional vehicle that contain food or other attractants.  Not a good thing.  Each successful foray increases the chances that the bear will continue this behavior and decreases the bear’s fear of people.  Black bears are a part of our natural environment – the very same environment that we as Park staff have pledged to protect.  The best way to protect our bears (and our whole environment) is to keep them wild.   Becoming “food-conditioned” and losing fear of humans almost always ends up badly for the bear.

Research indicates very clearly that once a bear is food conditioned, it is very difficult to reverse the bear’s attitude and return the bear to a wild status.  Research with a variety of “averse conditioning” including subjecting to the bear chasing and to loud noises such as air horns, whistles, non-lethal loud ammunition or to direct conditioning such as rubber slugs or pepper spray, may have an effect, but often the effect is temporary and the bear returns to old habits after some time away from the campground.

The key to the problem, clearly, is to keep bears from successfully acquired food from people.  This means diligently storing food in vehicles, bear canisters and food storage bins.  In the backcountry, those without bear canisters should use a bear line.  A properly installed bear line can be tricky to rig and take some time, but losing all your food on the out leg of a 5 day backcountry trip is no fun.  In areas where food conditioning is passed down through bear families, bears have learned tricks to undo even the best of bear lines and the only sure way to secure your food is to use a bear canister.  Again, Baxter Park bears are still very wild and a good bear line will still work in the Park, but a poorly rigged bear line will encourage bears to continue to work at bear lines.

We will continue to work on this issue in the Park.  In the future, visitors should expect the Park to be ever more vigilant and intent at enforcing proper food storage.  We will be reviewing our food storage enforcement policies this winter along with options for providing food storage lockers at campgrounds, increased opportunities to obtain bear canisters as well as reviewing our information and education outreach on the issue of bears and food storage.
As We Hope to See Bears - Wild   (Photo by Deidre Brace)
Getting this right is important.  The relative wildness of the bears in Baxter State Park is a great gift that we should not squander by allowing our sloppy food habits to habituate these bears.  Keeping our bears wild will ensure they can live a natural and wild life and improve the experience of our visitors in the wilderness of the Park.