Last Review/Updated: February 24, 2004
Bear Problems and Management
The growth of human settlement, agriculture, industry and recreation increasingly brings bears and people together, which often causes conflict. Bears may kill or maul livestock, consume crops, or create nuisances in residential and other areas. On occasion, bears threaten, maul and even kill people. After these incidents, especially when described in gory details in the media, the mere sighting of bears close to camping grounds, farms or residences sparks concern and worry. The beekeeper with damaged beehives, the tourist-lodge operator who is confronted with bears around the fish-cleaning table, or the camper who sees one skulking near his tent may demand information, compensation or even bear removal.
The Fish and Wildlife Division has kept records of personal or property losses from bears since the early 1970s and from 1982 onwards has entered these into a computerized database. Yearly trends in the number of complaints on provincial lands are provided in the accompanying figure. In the case of black bears, although there is annual variation, often related to availability of natural foods, there is neither a major increase or decrease over the 22 years shown. Most frequently complaints concerned the problematic sightings of bears in close proximity to areas of human activity (34%), human harassment (24%), beeyard damages (13%), killing, mauling or harassment of livestock or pets (13%), campgrounds (5%), other property (5%), industrial (2%), and others (4%). With grizzly bears, complaints have increased significantly in recent years; most of them pertaining to sightings (this may reflect, in part, a greater tendency to report such sightings in recent years).
Bears and Beehives
Black bears are fond of honey and the larvae of bees, which are highly nutritious and, where there are beehives, can be easily obtained foods. In Alberta, damages to apiaries were particularly common in the Peace River area during the 1970's, where commercial beekeepers placed out some 75 000 hives annually. The proximity of forest cover to farmers' fields lured a succession of ursine raiders to beeyards. By 1971, damage was extensive; many bears were being killed, and a major research and management program was initiated. Estimates of annual monetary loss, during which over 1600 complaints were investigated, ranged from $47 000 to $133 000, which represented about two-thirds of total loss. During the study (1972-1979), more than 800 bears were removed from beeyards; most (70%) were males and young animals (2-3 year olds). Research, coordinated jointly by Alberta Agriculture (Larry Roy) and Fish and Wildlife (John Gunson) focused on ways of deterring bears. Translocation was only partially
successful: 8 out of 15 bears moved prior to the end of July returned to the damage area; 7 of the 15 repeated damages within 2 years. Aversive conditioning using emetics failed to reduce damages. Electro-shocking (to reinforce electric fences) was reasonably effective during the season of capture, but bears returned in subsequent years. Over 600 electric fences were designed and built in a government-beekeeper, cost-shared program; fences successfully repelled about 80 percent of bear visits. In addition, a beeyard damage compensation program provided partial indemnity for bear damages during 1978-1993.
|Bears and Livestock
Both grizzlies and black bears occasionally kill livestock, but the latter, which are more common, cause most of the damage. In Alberta, between 100 and 200 incidents of bear predation or harassment of livestock occur each year. The Livestock Predator Compensation Program (LPCP) made up to ranchers a portion of the market value (80% on confirmed kills, 50% on probable kills) of loss during 1974-1993. During this period, an average of $406 was paid on 1,536 approved claims. Cattle accounted for 81% of livestock predation; sheep and swine about 9% each. Most (71%) of the cattle killed were calves. A study in Alberta involving offending bears confirmed that livestock predation by black bears most often involved mature and old males. The LPCP was reactivated in 1996.
"The death of an old boar can be widely celebrated: by the hunter, for his quarry was wary, clever and potentially dangerous; and by the younger bears of the district, because their lives are in danger whenever an old male is near. As long as the hunter seeks big bears without cubs, he need have no pangs of conscience about reducing the black bear population. An old boar recognizes no bag limits in killing his younger brethren."
—Jack Ondrack, Big Game Hunting in Alberta
Bears and Industry
During the 1970s, the rapid increase in petroleum exploration and development in the province was accompanied by a corresponding rise in nuisance bear complaints. In response to these problems, the Energy Resources Conservation Board, with input from wildlife management, recommended daily incineration or burial of garbage. The oil industry reacted quickly and incinerators became widely used at remote sites. With additional management and regulations, including the publication of guidelines for design and operation of incinerators in 1983, industrial-related bear complaints declined.
Bears and Landfills
One of the primary reasons why bears get into conflict with people is that they become habituated to human foods and garbage. Refuse landfills that are not secured from bears become chronic hot spots for trouble. Recurrent problems occurred at Fort McMurray, Hinton, Grande Cache, Syncrude and other locations. Today, municipalities and Alberta wildlife managers work together to plan and erect chain link and electrified barriers around garbage dumps. Containerized waste management and trucking-out has been implemented in the national parks, Kananaskis Country and at other locations.
Bears as Predators
"Twenty odd feet away, behind a scrubby black birch clump, an indistinct mass of fur began to rise up and up, till I found myself confronted by an enormous grizzly bear standing at full height with big front paws hanging over a vast expanse of hairy belly. It was sort of wilderness confrontation of David and Goliath—with David sadly miscast, for he did not feel very brave. He stood frozen, every detail etching into his mind. He did not know it, but Goliath was equally transfixed with astonishment and curiosity. The giant's eyes glowed with a deep flame. He looked as huge as the end of the earth, his shoulders mantled with shining silver that contrasted with his dark brown coat, those great front paws hung with long, brilliant ivory claws."
—Andy Russell, Grizzly Country
Although primarily vegetarians, if the opportunity presents itself, bears hunt and kill other animals, large and small. Recent studies have confirmed that both black bears and grizzlies can be persistent predators of hoofed mammals. For example, black bears killed 25 of 53 radioed elk calves in Idaho and grizzlies killed at least 27 of 60 radioed moose calves in the southern Yukon. Individual bears deliberately search for these newborn ungulates. In a study in Banff National Park, grizzlies were found to hunt elk calves in late May and early June. In another study near Fort McMurray, at least 3 of 8 radioed moose calves were killed by black bears. Understanding the impact of such predation on large mammal populations requires additional research.
While the vast majority of bears are shy and flee from humans, aggressive encounters do occur. Injuries are usually minor (requiring less than one day of hospitalization), but there are instances where people are very seriously mauled, requiring lengthy stays in hospital, surgery, and many, many stitches. Humans may even be killed and partly consumed. Aggressive confrontations occur when bears, especially females with cubs, are surprised at close range. Some bears are provoked if they become accustomed to feeding on humans' food or if they are trailed by a hunter. Bears, especially black bears, have been known to pursue a person to feed on them, but this is rare. During 22 years, from 1974 to 1995, there have been at least 36 maulings (19 by black bears and 17 by grizzlies) and 10 fatalities (6 by black bears and 4 by grizzlies) in Alberta. About one-half of these encounters occurred in or very near the three mountain national parks.
Problem Bear Management
Legislation allows Alberta landowners to shoot black bears on private lands and grazing leases throughout the year and without permit or limit. Registration of such kills is not yet mandatory, but this requirement is under consideration. Policy encourages complainants to report problems involving grizzlies to government. While a damage permit to remove a problem grizzly can be issued, Alberta Sustainable Resource Development prefers to have control of these large, potentially ferocious bears handled by specialists to ensure humaneness of control and public safety.
Alberta Fish and Wildlife Officers are trained to respond to complaints that involve bears. In cases where a grizzly must be captured, and in all incidents involving human injury or death, a Bear Response Team (BRT) is activated. Its members are experienced with bears and have access to special equipment to control human access and capture bears, in which case humane leghold snares or barrel traps are used. Since the inception of this program in 1985 (spearheaded by officers Jan Allen, Randy Flath, Ron Hanson, and Dennis Weisser), BRTs have successfully responded to many dangerous bear incidents, capturing 140 grizzlies and many blacks in the process. In the national parks, dedicated wardens like the late Norm Woodie and Wes Bradford (Jasper), Bill Vroom and Rick Kunelius (Banff), Keith Brady (Waterton) and their associates coordinate the handling of nuisance bears.
Potentially dangerous to investigating officers and high profile to the public, bears are handled with respect, and the identified procedures are highly regulated. Rules apply to the translocation or killing of captured bears, release areas and sites, marking, biological sampling and data recording. For example, if a prime-aged adult grizzly is captured, it must be moved twice before any killing is considered. To determine their age, teeth must be collected from all grizzlies handled, all tagged black bears and all animals that are killed. Data cards need to be filled out for all grizzlies and immobilized or tagged black bears. This information is processed systematically and filed in a modern system.
In response to complaints, the number of animals captured per year currently averages 100-200 black bears and 10-30 grizzlies. Most of the latter are translocated (93% over period from 1988 to 1995), rather than killed. Historically, most nuisance black bears were killed, but translocation is increasingly employed (e.g., 5% in 1986, 33% in 1989, 68% in 1992). More than 2500 black bears have been moved to remote habitats between the early '70s and mid-'90s.