As I drive through the woods of Pennsylvania, I pass Civil War battlefields and old colonial era towns on my way from Washington, DC into black bear country. Bears are increasingly active across these Appalachian hills, as spring brings warmer weather, fresh green up, and newborn fawns.
I’m headed to a small mountain town called Ligonier for the 23rd Eastern Black Bear Workshop, a meeting that has brought together North America’s state and provincial bear biologists and wildlife managers since 1972. Workshop participants from Alaska to Florida are here to discuss the future of black bear management in a new political world with changing public opinions.
Like so many big game species that have benefited from the sustainable use conservation model, black bears have made a tremendous recovery, and are rebounding in many eastern states. There are now some 800,000 black bears in the U.S. and Canada, with the majority of populations increasing in size and range.
Take Pennsylvania for example. When the Eastern Black Bear Workshop was last held here in 1972, there were roughly 3,000 bears in the entire state. Hunting was closed for three seasons in the 1970s before restoration efforts took place in the early 80s. Now, with a strong population of 20,000 bears, Pennsylvania hunters sustainably harvest 20% of the population while still maintaining an 8% growth rate every year.
But, as a result of this conservation success story, conflicts between humans and bears are escalating. These bruins are often the cause of vehicle collisions or are caught rummaging through suburban trashcans. Wildlife managers from rural areas like Ligonier, and many other areas with more urban bear populations, urgently need to reduce human-bear conflict.
Fortunately, despite the large overlap in space and a growing number of human-bear interactions, there is only an average of two fatalities each year in the U.S. and Canada. Still, these conflicts are serious and the rising rates of human injury and nuisance calls along the eastern U.S. are putting more pressure on wildlife managers to mitigate the conflict.
With more bears comes an increasing cost to the public and the responsible management agencies due to compensation for damage, responding to conflict, handling of problem bears, conducting the necessary research, etc. In today’s society, public outreach and education on living with bears and the appropriate methods of management are emerging as important topics.
In Tennessee, a state dealing with a resurging bear population in its urban areas, 75% of people said they know little to nothing about bears with only 1% referring to the state’s wildlife agency. That’s a huge challenge when defending traditional management methods like hunting or implementing a new educational campaign like BearWise, and initiative to standardize bear awareness and food security practices.
With a scientific name like Ursus americanus, “American bear,” this species is as evocative of America as Smokey the Bear or “Teddy” Roosevelt. Black bears have inspired American sportsmen and conservationists from the public forests of the West to Louisiana’s swamps to the Appalachian Trail.
But today, hunters and wildlife managers live in a new world – one in which uninformed public sentiment and emotional outcries often trump public safety and science-based management, hindering our ability to properly manage bears.
For the wildlife managers at this workshop, hunting is a tool. Hunting helps reduce human-bear conflict directly by controlling populations, or indirectly by affecting bear behavior, dispersal and movement. Funds raised by hunting permits are also used by agencies to pay for conflict compensation or educational campaigns like BearWise.
We recently witnessed the closure of the bear hunting season in Florida, a state struggling to manage a large population of suburban food-conditioned bears living among a high human density. With a record 4,050 bears and a spike in human injuries, the state opened hunting in 2015 for the first time in decades. Although the hunt was science-based and a management success, it created a massive public backlash.
Funds raised from the 2015 bear permits contributed $375,000 to Florida’s BearWise program. In some cases, these funds were awarded to counties that voted against the hunting season. BearWise programs in Florida, like bear-proof trash can communities, have shown to be successful in reducing conflict. But without funding from hunting, frustrated wildlife managers will now have to appeal to the state legislature for taxpayer dollars to continue the program.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is currently incorporating more detailed hunting language into their updated management plan, with hope of reopening a bear hunting season in 2019 or 2020. Meanwhile, human-bear conflict may reach a boiling point.
Whereas Florida lost its bear hunt, other states are trying to hold onto hunting methods like baiting or using dogs, and are considering liberalizing hunting seasons or introducing spring hunts. However, political and public backlash are serious considerations for state agencies working to manage their bears in today’s modern world.
After each day’s agenda at the workshop in Ligonier, we share stories from the field around the campfire. Experts discuss how to make the BearWise logo as recognizable as Smokey the Bear itself over cold beers and simmering coals. As bears continue to expand, they hope to see more hunting opportunities and more management decisions made on science.
The 23rd Eastern Black Bear Workshop was hosted by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. SCI Foundation was the major sponsor, along with the SCI Three State, Pittsburgh, North Carolina Triangle, Northwoods, and Allegheny Mountains Chapters. SCI Foundation has a growing bear research program, funding ongoing projects in Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, Michigan, and Missouri.