Monday, February 28, 2011

Another Strike Against Bear Research

As stated elsewhere on the blog, Lynn Rogers of Minnesota's North American Bear Center has done more to change people's attitudes about black bears than anyone else, his work often being compared to Jane Goodall's and Dian Fossey's. His efforts to put a webcam in the den of a pregnant black bear has become a worldwide sensation, a sensation that's only gaining strength now that Rogers has established two den webcams for the world to watch this winter.

For years, Rogers has been pleading with the Minnesota DNR to provide special protections for the radio-collared black bears that are the subjects of his work. Attempts to work with hunters to spare the bears has had its successes and its failures. While many hunters have agreed to cooperate and spare collared bears, others have seemingly declared war against Lynn and his work. Signs posted by Lynn politely asking hunters to spare radio-collared bears have often been torn down, leaving other hunters unaware of the request and a number of study bears have been lost as a result.

After the Lily the Black Bear phenomenon took flight last year, many fans of Lily on Facebook pushed for Lynn to ask the DNR to illegalize the hunting and killing of radio-collared bears to prevent the same fate from befalling Lily and her cub, Hope. Lynn ultimately chose not to pursue this option, hoping instead to work with hunters and educate them about the necessity of research bears. The end result did not go quite as planned. In September of 2010, a study bear was killed and the bloody radio collar mailed anonymously to the DNR by the hunter. It's an action that many feel was done for spite and one that prompted Lynn to finally move to help illegalize the hunting and killing of research bears. Despite noble efforts, however, the Minnesota DNR announced this morning that they will not offer special protection for radio-collared bears, as you can read about here:

As opposed to this decision as I am, I can't say I'm really surprised by it. After spending as much time as I have studying and researching bears, I've seen more spiteful attacks against bear advocates and researchers than I can even keep track of and this is just one more in a very long and growing list. What is it about bears that instills such a strong negative backlash, particularly from wildlife managers? Is it really just lack of education or is there something more? Considering the small number of radio-collared bears and the benefits to science that they provide, I don't see what the problem is here.

Now it seems the question is becoming not "how do we get the DNR to protect the bears", but "how do we protect the bears from the DNR?"

Thursday, February 24, 2011

New Bear Safety Research

Reading Bill Schneider's 2004 book Where The Grizzly Walks, my attention was drawn to a chapter on new bear safety research conducted by Stephen Herrero and biologist Tom Smith to determine what scents, sounds, and colors may attract or deter bears. With the summertime bear season approaching, I thought it wise to present this information, especially considering how surprising it might be for some people with more outdated and conventional ideas about bear safety.

Stephen Herrero is the author of the 1985 book Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. He has made safety in bear country his life's work and most of what we know today about peacefully co-existing with bears comes from his research and the subsequent book. Considering that this knowledge is ever-changing, he is frequently working to stay on top of the latest research.

Herrero and Smith have been involved in an ongoing research project in Alaska's Katmai National Park to answer the questions posed in the first paragraph. Some of their findings were a bit unexpected and defied some of the standard bear safety knowledge that we hold today.

They found, for example, that grizzlies seemed to ignore dark colors or camouflage colors, whereas they were often attracted to bright colors, such as yellow or red. Some of these bears would approach brightly-colored tents and tear them down and bypass darker ones, causing Katmai park rangers to adopt the usage of only camouflage tents, which they reported had cut bear visitation to campsites by half.

While testing scents, they discovered that bears were usually attracted to perfume, fruit-scented shampoos, and citronella (an ingredient of some insect repellents). It is now also widely known that while bear spray can repel bears, the scent often attracts them. It is never a wise idea to spray bear mace on your tent, your sleeping bag, or your clothes as some people have a habit of doing. It will only get you into trouble!

The testing of sounds brought the biggest surprises of all. We are told to make lots of noise while in bear country, but how much is too much and what sounds really are effective? Herrero and Smith found that the bears took notice of the sounds of human vocalizations but did not flee from them, as we are so often told they will. Whistling is not recommended as it can be an attractant, too closely mimicking the sound of a wounded animal or a marmot. They also found bear bells to be ineffective and largely ignored. The only sounds the researchers found that caused the bears to run were clattering rocks, snapping sticks, and low deep coughs, sounds that would normally indicate the approach of another bear.

I believe these findings are very important and will one day meld into the knowledge that we now have. Bottom line is to blend in with your surroundings and be at one with your environment. While working at Fortress of the Bear last summer in Sitka, a bear sighting in the historical park prompted a group of hikers to spend their time in the park shouting and banging metal pots and pans together everywhere they went. This was overkill and unnecessary and runs the risk of angering a bear that would rather not be disturbed. In my hiking excursions, I found that an occasional low, deep cough and a kicked rock cleared the way rather nicely and gave the impression of another bear rather than an approaching human.

So be unobtrusive in bear country and don't attract the curiosity of a very curious animal. Don't wear bright clothing, don't sleep in a tent that stands out, leave sharp and sweet-smelling products behind, and move down the trails as if you yourself were a bear. Carry the bear spray over firearms but remember that it's no replacement for your brain. I think these are some of the most effective safety rules that you can practice while enjoying yourself in bear country!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Of Bears and Bureaucrats

In 1959, twin brothers John and Frank Craighead pioneered the now often-used technique of radio-collaring and tracking bears, their study focused on several generations of grizzlies in Yellowstone over a period of thirteen years. In what would become the most thorough and most definitive study of the grizzly - the standard by which all others would be measured - the Craigheads touched on every aspect of grizzly bear life: from social relations to feeding habits to denning and hibernation, etc., etc., forming the picture of the grizzly and its environment that we now know today.

The Craigheads ultimately benefited the park and its bears in other ways too, instructing and assisting park rangers and using their expertise at trapping, tracking, and releasing to perform the risky task of capturing and relocating marauding bears that threatened campgrounds. While a few employees of the Park Service viewed their help as an intrusion, most were grateful for their insights and contributions and, in 1962, the park even requested that the brothers draw up a list of management recommendations. Unfortunately, the fields of wildlife research and wildlife management are, and have always been, uneasy bedfellows...something that would become apparent to the Craigheads in the very near future.

In 1963, a system of "natural management" guidelines were proposed that essentially allowed for letting nature take care of itself. Let wildfires burn out of control, let the animals get wiped out by epidemics, let the grizzlies starve when their numbers exceed their habitat's carrying capacity. The park liked the outline and the following year, the Craigheads management ideas were rescinded and they were assigned to strictly research.

Then in 1967, Glacier National Park was rocked by the horrific and tragic deaths of Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, teenage girls killed by two marauding grizzlies on the same night, the attack on Julie occurring only a hundred yards or so from a dump site that nightly drew a number of grizzlies to feed on human garbage. Park managers of Yellowstone were left in a panic, as several dump sites throughout the park had been attracting dozens of black and grizzly bears and the fear was that this would lead to fatalities in Yellowstone as well. (In actuality, it was unfortunate tragedy that caused Michele's death and Park Service bear safety disinformation that caused Julie's).

Having spent countless hours tracking and monitoring several grizzlies who regularly fed at the dumps, the Craigheads gathered evidence that these bears lived functional, healthy lives in the wild, did not associate the garbage with humans, and had never posed a threat to hikers or campers as a result. They advised closing the dumps gradually to slowly wean the bears off the garbage and back onto wild foods, but park managers insisted the dumps be closed quickly and immediately, despite warnings from the Craigheads that this could lead to the very tragedies they were hoping to avoid.

Later that same year, the Craigheads handed in a progress report on their study. Entitled Management of Bears in Yellowstone National Park, the report openly criticized the park's management plan, criticism that circulated to the high levels of Washington, where it was not warmly accepted. With the battle lines drawn, the dumps were suddenly closed and, just as the Craigheads predicted, the number of bear problems in the campgrounds dramatically increased. According to records kept by Frank, 84 control actions were taken against bears by the Park Service in 1968, more than double what it had been the previous year, but park managers only kept record of 24 of these actions, advising their rangers to remove the bears but keep it quiet.

Later in 1968, Frank and John found that the abandoned wooden mess hall that they had been granted permission to use as a research station and living quarters had been bulldozed and burned to the ground. The Park Service claimed that it had been done in preparation for the park's upcoming centennial celebration in 1972, but they denied the Craigheads use of any other vacant buildings and refused to allow them to participate in any further capture and relocation of bears. In 1971, when Frank asked to see complete records of all relocation and control actions taken since the dump closures, he was denied. Later the Park Service claimed that the Craigheads had not been supplying them with any recent data, but the Craigheads contend that each time they handed in reports to the managers, the reports were promptly handed back. The final death blow to the Craigheads academic freedom - not to mention their personal rights - came when the Park Service stipulated that all publications or comments made by the Craigheads pertaining to Yellowstone grizzlies be approved in advance by the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and that that man in turn get the approval of the director of the National Park Service before a mouth could be opened or a word printed. The Craigheads refused to sign the agreement. The work was over.

The trouble, on the other hand, was just beginning. Fatalities attributed to the improperly weaned bears occurred and that led to the extermination of forty to fifty grizzlies per year. By 1973, news of the Craighead/Park Service confrontation had made its rounds through the press and the National Academy of Sciences formed a committee to evaluate the mess that had been left behind. Analyzing the reports and records of both the Park Service and the Craigheads, the committee ruled in favor of the Craigheads and the wealth of data they had gathered and lambasted park managers for blatantly disregarding that information. Shockingly, two years later, the committee changed its mind and claimed the Park Service had the most accurate records on file.

And on and on this goes. A hundred page book could be written on the fallout of this study alone and how those echoes still linger in management offices today. Grizzly bear management hasn't come much further, primarily because the old ideologies about bears remain stuck in people's minds and are hard to remove. That's very disheartening, considering the dilemma facing the Yellowstone grizzly today, the loss of its food supply, and the inevitability that the species will expand its habitat boundaries. The Park Service is aware of this issue and, as I've shown in recent posts, is pushing for new management regulations to be put into affect. The problem is they don't have a very good grasp on just what effective management is. Here's a plan that might work:

1. Considering how much data and knowledge the Craigheads were able to gather, allow that kind of work to continue. Radio-collaring and tracking bears can only be instrumental in expanding our knowledge of their patterns, their range, and their needs. Only with a full understanding - and acceptance - of this issue can the necessary steps be taken to meet those needs.

2. No more killing problem bears. Relocation is good, but they will find their way back. When they do, they are almost always met with a hail of bullets. Zoos and sanctuaries - at least those that can be trusted to properly care for and maintain these animals - are a much better solution than death. That's the reason why many of these places exist in the first place. Establish lines of communication between park managers and these facilities and arrange for persistent problem bears to be moved to the sanctuaries.

3. With farmers and ranchers concerned that the expanding range of the grizzlies will result in heavy sheep and cattle losses, put supplemental feeding programs into effect. Again, this has been used to great success with other bears so there is no reason for it not to work in this situation. The bears do not associate this food with humans so the old "a fed bear is a dead bear" ideologies need to be left behind. This will result not only in the preservation of cattle, but in helping save the lives of both bears and people.

4. Establish good bear safety regulations. While there is some good info in the pamphlets you can pick up at any National Park, it is not entirely accurate. Different methods work for different species of bear and these pamphlets don't specify that information. Establish extensive crash courses for visitors with an emphasis on bear body language. This will greatly increase safety in bear country.

This isn't a full management outline obviously, but just a few basic and important points that should be taken to heart. It almost seems too simple, but the trick is that it really is this simple. We've come a long way in the last decade in our understanding of bears, far enough to safely say that it's time to open our minds to a new way of thinking, a more sensible plan of management. While it will be like throwing pebbles at a brick wall, our voices should be heard on this issue. Contact any park managers you can and push the supplemental feeding issue as an option plan for this summer. It could work. It would just take imagination and effort, otherwise not just bears will die but people will die and those are losses that we cannot afford.

Sources for further reading:
The Grizzly Bear by Thomas McNamee, 1984
Track of the Grizzly by Frank Craighead, 1979
Where the Grizzly Walks by Bill Schneider, 2004
Grizzly Wars by David Knibb, 2008
The Grizzly Manifesto by Jeff Gailus, 2010