Can Bears and Humans Coexist?

Arizona’s Game and Fish Department killed a black bear in a mountain town last week, raising questions about the tense relationship between people and predators.

Lance Palmer, a 140-pound high school wrestler takes on a 650-pound black bear during an exhibition wrestling match at a sportsmen's show in Cleveland, Ohio. (Jamie-Andrea Yanak / AP )

It was 9:45 in the morning, high in the mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona, on a ranch road that runs alongside a dried-up lake named Dry Lake, when a bear wandered into town. The Arizona Game and Fish Department is responsible for managing wildlife, and sometimes that means killing them. For three hours last Friday, agents chased a black bear across roads, through thickets of pine trees, down hills, and over neighborhood fences. The bear was a male, three years old, and so considered an adult. A fatal category. Agents shot the bear with a tranquilizer near a busy highway, then they killed it.

It’s a precarious thing to live near the wild. Most people move to places like Flagstaff, known for its ponderosa pine forests and the red rock buttes to the south, precisely because of its proximity to nature––to be able to walk out the door and become lost in country that feels as raw as it did 200 years ago. But part of living so close to nature means living in wandering distance of animals that can kill, like mountain lions or black bears. After the agency killed the bear, it was not the town’s safety that concerned the most vocal residents. Instead, it started a conversation across the state that’s also come up recently in Los Angeles with a mountain lion named P-22, with wolves in rural Oregon and anywhere around Yellowstone National Park, and also with black bears in a gated community in central Florida. Can people, so comfortable to living unchallenged in the food chain, peacefully coexist with predators?

Except for being around humans, the bear posed no immediate threat. And Game and Fish said it hadn’t handled the bear before, so it’s not like it had a penchant for trips into town. Still, it’s the agency’s policy to kill adult male bears when captured, even if its the first time. Neighboring states have similar rules. Some, like Colorado, have a two-strike policy, which means the bear could only be killed if it’s been caught before.

And it’s not just states that regularly kill wildlife. The federal government has an agency almost entirely dedicated to killing animals, many of them predators. In 2014 the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division, which animal conservationists have called a “rogue agency,” killed 2.7 million animals, including 305 cougars, 322 wolves, 580 black bears, 796 bobcats, 1,186 red foxes, and 61,702 coyotes. As a writer for the magazine High Country News pointed out, that’s one dead coyote every eight and a half minutes.

It doesn’t take much to authorize an extermination. The agents with Arizona Fish and Game had no choice in the matter, because the agency’s policy requires it to kill captured adult bears. As for Wildlife Services, all it takes is a concerned rancher or homeowner to ask.

In response to the killing, a local citizen started a petition to change Arizona Game and Fish’s policy for killing bears, and just about every big newspaper in the state wrote about it. The petition calls for an “end to summary execution of male bears in Arizona,” saying that “living in Flagstaff, surrounded by National Forest, is a blessing and we accept the risk of encountering wildlife, including predators.”

The black bear is in no threat of dying out. Ursus americanus is the smallest species of bear in North America, and it lives almost anywhere with enough trees to hide in. Black bears can be found in Canada, the whole stretch of the U.S. East Coast and down to Florida, in the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada mountains, and Mexico’s Sierra Madre. As was the case with the bear in Flagstaff, they’re not always black. Some are colored white, blond, cinnamon, light and dark brown, or a black so deep it’s almost purple. As omnivores, they eat berries and grass, fish and elk, and regularly roam 100 miles to find food. And sometimes in their wanderings, they come across humans.

Arizona’s policy today––although it’s been updated several times since––is based in part on a black bear attack in 1996. Before then, Arizona Game and Fish would catch bears who wandered into towns or campgrounds, tranquilize them, then turn them loose in another area. But in the previous two years leading up to the attack on the girl, the Tucson Citizen reported eight other times bears had come into camps or towns or mauled people. The attack that changed the state’s policy toward bears involved a 16-year-old girl who’d fallen asleep in a Boy Scout campground in Coronado National Forest, a mountainous park at the state’s southern end. She’d gone back to the tent with the smell of s’mores on her face, and a bear poked its head into her tent, bit her shoulder, her thigh, and swiped at her head. A headline in the Tucson Citizen a day after the bear attacked the girl read: “Some bears may be exiled, killed.” And from the article it seemed Game and Fish would not only change its policy regarding bears, but that in the days after the attack, agents would pursue and “destroy” some bears living in the national forest.

I spoke with Arizona Game and Fish agent Shelly Shepherd, who says killing bears is quite rare. In the past 15 years there’ve been around 10 bears attacks in the state, and almost certainly all of them were euthanized. She could not say, at the time, how many the state had killed, who, like the bear last week, had just wandered into an area where people lived. Her biggest frustration with the petition, and with much of the criticism she heard from people around the state––from around the country, even––was that everyone wanted to know why Game and Fish couldn’t relocate the bear. It’s partly because, she said, any adult male bear and any “category-one” animal on their predator list, which includes mountain lions, has to be killed according to the agency’s policy. And the reason for that policy, in part, is because as Arizona’s population expands into its deserts, its forests, and all the places people choose to live precisely because of they’re proximity to wild and natural places, there are fewer areas to relocate bears.

“It’s difficult,” she said. “We’ve talked with ranchers and they say, ‘No way, I don’t want you to put that bear anywhere near my property.’”

State and national parks won’t take a bear either, Shepherd said, because if they did and it attacked someone, they’d be liable. Even Bearizona, a 160-acre park without cages that lets people drive cars through its managed bear country of Ponderosa Pines, won’t take adult male bears because they’re too aggressive.

“There’s such mixed feeling about wildlife and the proximity to people,” Shepherd said. “Some people want it, and some don’t.”

In the hills of Los Angeles this March, a mountain lion living in the same park as the Hollywood sign snacked on a koala from the nearby Los Angeles Zoo. Surveillance cameras caught the lion, radio-collared and tagged as P-22, sneaking into the zoo the night before the koala disappeared. And in the days after, the people of Los Angeles questioned if it was safe to have a mountain lion so close to people. While there wasn’t discussion of killing, they wondered both for their own safety, and for P-22’s.

Some, like city councilman Mitch O’Farrell, said the mountain lion may need to be relocated. Others contemplated the same question those in Arizona had after its Game and Fish agents killed the black bear: Can people and predators co-exist?

In Arizona, the state predicts its population will double from the current 6.7 million to 12.1 million by 2050. Across the West—or anywhere in the U.S. where people move to feel frontier nostalgia—small towns are turning into cities, and cities into metropolises. In Flagstaff, not far from where people first reported seeing the black bear, there are new luxury condos going up in the forest. The homes circle a golf course, a private park, and a creek stocked with rainbow trout. Go ahead, the development’s website entices, “take a walk on the wild side.”