Conservationists have long warned of the dangers of habituating bears in urban areas. However, the news does not seem to have reached everyone.
News reports continue to report seemingly similar situations – a foraging bear invades a neighborhood, easily finds quality food, and refuses to leave. The story often ends with conservation officials being forced to euthanize the animal for public safety reasons.
Now, a new study by sustainability researchers at the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science is using computer models to investigate the best strategies for reducing human-bear conflicts.
“It happens all the time, and unfortunately it’s almost always people’s fault,” says study co-author Dr. Lael Parrott.
To reduce the number of conflicts, Dr. Parrott and a team of researchers, including graduate student Luke Crevier, created a computer model to simulate the journeys of bears in a specific urban area.
Their goal was to find the best way to keep bears out.
Using the resort community of Whistler as their study area, the team partnered with Margo Supplies, a wildlife management technology solutions company based in High River, Alberta. Using agent-based computer modeling, the researchers were able to simulate the movement of black bears in and around Whistler and identify the potential attractants that attract them.
“Our model allows us to enter large amounts of data, including the spatial characteristics of the landscape, movement patterns gathered through GPS tracking of real bears, and other vital information to essentially create a virtual landscape,” says Crevier.
The problem, he adds, is that bears are attracted to what researchers call anthropogenic food – readily available food sources like human trash, berries, or fruit.
“We were able to track the model bears as they moved through the landscape and interacted with different cells in the software that represented anthropogenic food, vegetation, and human deterrence. The ability to put in all of these proxies allowed us to better understand where they are located. ” Roaming why and test different strategies within the simulation to find the most effective way to keep them out. “
The results of the study reinforced the team’s expectations that using attractant reduction and human deterrent strategies together is the most effective way to keep bears away. In cases where only one strategy could be used, attractant reduction was most effective.
âThese results confirm that the management strategies used the most are actually the most effective,â explains Crevier. “It was really interesting how we could use the model to identify attractants that might otherwise not be considered – like human garbage or large quantities of berries on private property within city limits.”
A bear’s intelligence and memory are primarily the reasons why reducing the availability of anthropogenic food is considered more effective than reactive management strategies that aim to deter bears when used alone.
“The use of deterrents like bear pops can be effective temporarily as the bear scares and runs away, but it won’t be gone for long,” explains Dr. Parrott. “You will remember being scared off, but your memories of the good food will make you feel less fearful.”
Although Whistler was chosen as a study site because of the large number of black bears venturing into the city, Crevier says this type of modeling can be used for communities across Canada with similar problems.
âThe cool thing about this model is that it allows us to study how different management strategies interact with each other, and this type of model can also be used to better understand the movements of other large predators like pumas or wolves,â he adds .
Dr. Parrott emphasizes the importance of learning how to coexist with wildlife in ways that are safe for all – including animals. While some people may not think twice about killing a neighborhood bear, the practice has far-reaching implications.
âWe know that bears that tend to get into communities are often juvenile or female bears with cubs because the big males already have ‘good spots’ and established their territories,â she explains. âThis is worrying because it means that the females are teaching their young techniques to access anthropogenic food. This also means that these are the bears that are killed most often, so we are selectively eliminating a certain portion of their population.
The results of this study, and similar agent-based models, give conservationists another tool in the toolbox to help communities reduce the number of bears entering urban areas, ultimately reduce the number of bears destroyed, and admit these problematic trends brake.
This study, recently published in Ecological modeling, was funded by an engagement grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.