Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Habituation Vs. Food Conditioning

Having read close to two dozen books about bears, I've had to sit through more than my fair share of in-depth rants about the dangers of food conditioning and habituation. Although they are two very different things, most authors lump them together as if they were one and the same and this creates a lot of confusion and misunderstanding on the issue. While food conditioning can be very dangerous for people and bears, habituation has a number of potential benefits for both sides, not the least of which is safety.

Food conditioning is dangerous because a food conditioned bear has not learned to tolerate people. Rather, it has learned that it can obtain food from people either by raiding campgrounds, bullying hikers, or - worst case scenario - using people as food, evidenced by the brutal deaths of Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons in Glacier National Park in 1967, two teenage girls who were killed on the same night, miles away from each other, by two food conditioned grizzlies. That tragic day rocked the world and since then great pains have been taken to limit bears access to human food. Equally tragic is the fact that a number of bears were also hunted down and killed. Unfortunately, the slow expansion of civilization is destroying more and more bear habitat and having a negative impact on their ability to obtain their natural foods. With the desperate need to consume as much food as possible before the onset of the winter months and hibernation, black bears in California are now moving into human civilization in search of that food, damaging property and fraying nerves. Similar incidents have occured throughout parts of Washington and Oregon but the good news is that instead of increasing the annual hunting quota, these states have instituted supplemental feeding programs for the bears. The animals do not associate the food supplied to them with people or civilization and the programs have been met with an almost 100% success rate in deterring bears from homes and neighborhoods. If more states took steps to establish their own programs like this, it could easily solve most food conditioning issues in a way that's safe for both bears and people.

That brings us to habituation, a word that is used in such a broadly generalized way that it almost has no clearly defined meaning anymore. Most researchers have a tendency to lump food conditioning and habituation together as if they're the same thing (I'm looking at you, Herrero, but I still love your book), but this is a mistake and one in which greater care should be taken to avoid. Habituation - adaptation would actually be a better word - is nothing more than the process of acclimating to new things and is something that is not just exclusive to bears. People do it, too, be it with a new car, a new house, new neighbors, etc. Habituated bears are animals that have mostly had positive, peaceful encounters with people and usually like, respect, and trust people. In fact, in all of my digging, I couldn't find a single account in which a habituated bear has ever hurt or killed anyone. The grizzlies at McNeil River are the best example of this, often eating and sleeping within only a few feet of the thousands of tourists that visit every year. The animals are treated with respect and so they give respect in turn.

In Beauty Within the Beast, Stephen Stringham advocates setting aside areas like McNeil River where bears can be habituated to people for the purposes of research, art, or the spiritual renewal of visitors. I'm not afraid to admit that I completely support that idea, and while I'm not holding my breath for it to ever happen, to hear that coming from a noted and respected biologist is surprising and refreshing! He has even shown in his work - as has Charlie Russell - that an acclimated bear will typically only trust those certain people that he is familiar with and will not put himself in any greater danger by approaching strangers with guns. Dr. Stringham also has been unable to find any evidence proving that habituated bears are more dangerous to people than non-habituated bears. If anything, he has helped to disprove it. That's vitally important information! How can it just be swept under the rug and ignored...unless the intention of most researchers is to ignore it? That will be the subject of a later post.

In the study of bear behavior, habituated bears are seen as the exception to the rule rather than the rule itself. I think serious studies need to be done of habituated bears and I think that if those studies are done, it will be found that habituated bears are not "damaged", but are the models of what could be possible with bears everywhere...depending on our tolerance and influence.

For further study, I recommend anything by Stephen Stringham and Charlie Russell, Summers With The Bears, and the research paper From the Field: Brown Bear Habituation to People - Safety, Risks, and Benefits by Stephen Herrero, Tom Smith, Terry DeBruyn, Kerry Gunther, and Colleen Matt, which can be found online.

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