The researchers found that the problem bears in the study tended to have problem mothers—that is, both were bears that were prone to nuisance behaviors like raiding livestock feed, rooting in human trash for food, or, say, climbing someone’s cherry tree. Although there were a larger number of fathers involved in incidents, it was with problem mothers that bears were likely to be problem bears themselves.
In other words, the bears’ behavior isn’t genetic; it’s learned. “The pattern” of the high proportion of problem offspring having problem mothers, Morehouse reiterates, “is very clear.” Which means that, by intervening with mothers that engage in problem behavior, landowners and wildlife managers can perhaps prevent further generations of grizzlies from learning to do the same.
The key to this prevention is the human element. While previous efforts have often focused on what’s called “aversive conditioning,” which uses “pain, discomfort, or irritation” to steer bears away from human habitation and livestock, previous studies have found that this kind of practice isn’t effective if bear-accessible food remains in the area. Bears are “opportunistic and flexible foragers.” Not only that, but female grizzlies need a minimum of 20 percent body fat to reproduce. Getting an adequate amount of calories into those huge bodies is crucial. If grizzlies learn that food is easy to come by, whether people are feeding them or just leaving their trash cans out by the road, they will keep returning for your livestock grain, your garbage, your backyard chickens, and your fruit trees, averse conditioning be damned.
“Wildlife management” is a term that doesn’t always get a lot of attention, much less respect, but work such as that done by Morehouse, Graves, and their colleagues is key to helping us live alongside large predators like grizzlies. Teaching humans to behave more thoughtfully around wildlife is turning out to be crucial to the bears’ survival, especially in areas where one might find hostility towards grizzlies due to previous problems.
There are already organizations in places like Montana and Alberta that teach people how to reduce bear conflicts, from keeping fallen apples picked up to storing cattle feed in bear-proof containers. Local organizations like Waterton Biosphere Reserve in Alberta help landowners install electric fencing, retrofit grain bins to be bear-proof, and remove dead livestock so as not to attract bears. In fact, as Morehouse pointed out more than once, it was the landowners’ desire in southwestern Alberta to work with their bear problem that led to this study in the first place. Morehouse describes the community she works in, which is a “hot spot” for grizzly interactions, as extremely proactive and focused on local collaboration.
In Montana, organizations from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes, among others, employ people to teach residents about living in bear country, and Defenders of Wildlife has a multi-state program to reduce the cost of electric fencing around garbage, fruit trees, and livestock. Waterton Biosphere Reserve itself is modeled on Blackfoot Challenge, which has been working on wildlife issues with landowners in and around Montana’s Blackfoot Valley, on the east side of Glacier National Park, since 2001. Blackfoot Challenge boasts a 93 percent reduction in incidents with grizzly bears since it began installing electric fencing, removing carcasses, and deploying Range Riders around affected properties. They’ve since expanded their strategies to wolves.