Here's a Quick and Easy Way to Save Bears' Lives

Bear on a trash bin | Photo: CDFW

Here's a wildlife fact that's actually kind of surprising: since people have been keeping records, there have been no human deaths due to black bear attacks in the state of California.

That's surprising for a couple of reasons. The first is that black bears do kill people in other places, with about one death every year or two elsewhere in North America. To be sure, fatal attacks by black bears on humans are rarer than attacks by many other animals -- you're more likely to be killed by a cow than by a black bear in the U.S., and far more likely to be killed by a dog. But fatal bear attacks do happen.

They just haven't happened, as far as we know, in California. And the second reason that's surprising is that California, with its urban-wilderness interfaces and hundreds of thousands of alpine vacation homes, probably offers more potential for bear-human conflicts than any other state. We've just been lucky so far. And if we behave ourselves, we can keep it that way.

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To some extent, the lack of human fatalities resulting from California black bear encounters is probably a fluke. Humans do find themselves tangling with bears here, and getting badly hurt in the process. California's Department of Fish and Wildlife lists 101 nonfatal but nonetheless unpleasant encounters with California black bears since May 1986. It's almost certainly just a matter of time before one of those 500-pound bruins inadvertently kills someone in California.

CDFW doesn't list the precipitating causes of those incidents, but one common spark for bear-human conflicts is thought to be responsible for two well-publicized incidents earlier this year. In August, 66-year-old Larry Yepez was badly injured by a black bear on his front porch in Mariposa County. In that same month, Jane Green, a resident of Incline Village on Lake Tahoe's Nevada Shore, was bitten on the left shoulder and scratched on her leg by a black bear, and was treated at a nearby hospital.

Authorities suspect that the bear that attacked Yepez was attracted by unsecured trash. Green, for her part, received a formal warning from Nevada wildlife officials: she'd been feeding bears in the neighborhood, and the bear that attacked her ended up being euthanized.

If it wasn't for the fact that we usually keep food around, black bears would want nothing to do with us. Even if we don't feed the bears deliberately, the fact that we keep it around provides a powerful lure -- as in the case of "Meatball," the bear that famously raided a freezer in a Glendale garage in 2012 for the morsels for which she was named on social media.

Even things we don't think of as food can be a powerful lure. That trash that may have caused Yepez's misfortune was thought to have been stored outside in plastic trash bags. That's a commonplace practice in many parts of the state, but it's definitely not a good idea in bear country.


Province of British Columbia/Flickr/Creative Commons License


In Yosemite National Park, which is pretty much the leading edge of bear-human interactions in the state, park rangers worked for decades to keep trash out of the bears' hands. Regular metal trash cans didn't work, nor did dumpsters. What did work, eventually, was a new kind of dumpster that was complex enough to open that it thwarted the bears' attempts to raid the contents.

Except that that didn't always work either, because the bear-safe trash bins sometimes proved too confusing for the park's human visitors to operate, with the result that trash would be left to one side of the bins by frustrated visitors, and was thus available to bears. It might be apocryphal, but the conundrum is said to have one National Park Service employee to remark "There is considerable overlap between the intelligence of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists."

That's pretty much where we stand now. We have straightforward technological means to keep bears from eating our trash; it's just a question of our being smart enough to use them.

And like all good ideas, the notion that it's our responsibility to keep our trash away from bears is intensely controversial at times. Bear management is, for instance, a hot-button local issue in the communities surrounding Tahoe, with some folks working to shame local businesses that they feel are careless with their trash, while others try to turn that shame right back around as a response to perceived negative tactics on the part of bear defenders. (We'll be looking more into that particular controversy in the weeks to come.)

The drought isn't helping. With crops of wild berries and roots far below average, as well as failures in salmon runs and other aquatic species that usually provide black bears with much of their protein, the urge to turn to their human neighbors for food grows ever stronger.

And once a bear starts raiding humans' food stashes, it's usually just a matter of time before that bear ends up euthanized, or road-killed, or otherwise in peril.

It's up to those of us who live in bear country to address the problem. Don't leave food outdoors: clear the last cindery hot dog off the outdoor grill even if no one wants it. Look into getting bear-proof trash containers. Feed your dogs and cats indoors, which is good advice for a number of reasons.

And for Pete's sake, do not feed the bears. It's not cute, it's not kind: it's dangerous to you and to the bear.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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