Rubber Slugs and iPhones


Big news for anyone who’s ever gone sprinting and hollering through the woods after the disappearing rear of an enterprising black bear:

We’ve now got a scientific assessment of bear hazing.

Rachel Mazur, of Sequoia National Park, has a paper in last month’s Journal of Wildlife Management on what the National Park Service likes to call "aversive conditioning" –namely, serious hazing to keep bears away from human food.

Aversive conditioning treatments [include] chasing (without dogs); 3 projectiles of varying impact intensity: rock throwing, slingshots, and rubber slugs; and pepper spray.

During my couple seasons on backcountry trail crews in Kings Canyon National Park, we would leave one cold soul sleeping in our (bear-proofed) outdoor kitchen each night, a pot and ladle handy in case they needed to make some noise. Everyone else was under strict orders to appear at the first shout and go chase off any ursine visitor in our knickers. The goal: total trauma – teaching bears to stay away, and teaching crew members not to leave their vittles out. Effective hazing all around, really.

Mazur and her crew were slightly more scientific. Between 2002 and 2005, they encountered 150 black bears while patrolling near campsites, picnic areas and visitors’ centers, and harassed them, methodically. They tested which tactics got the bears to scoot, which kept them from coming back, and which convinced bears that were already "food-conditioned" to break the habit.

Their conclusion: chasing and shouting works pretty well; shooting rubber slugs from a 12-gauge shotgun is better (well, yeah); some bears just never will learn, and neither will some people.

That last point is the big one. As long as campers left food and garbage accessible, bears entered developed areas, and once bears had a taste for easy human-supplied calories, no amount of aversive conditioning could keep them away. Writes Mazur:

Aversive conditioning, like lethal removal, will not be an effective management strategy if human food remains in the area. Before AC is attempted, adequate food-storage facilities must be available, along with an outreach and enforcement program that ensures these facilities are used. In areas where bears require access to critical habitats, the best management option may be to seasonally exclude humans, rather than bears.

The goal of bear-hazing, of course, is to save bruin lives. Bears with a taste for human food tend to end up dead – killed by the very agencies tasked with protecting them.

Black bear incursions have been a growing problem across the West. In California, where black bear populations have quadrupled since the 1980s, to an estimated 38,000, wildlife officials have been so exasperated that they recently proposed allowing hunters to kill up to 50% more bears annually. And last summer, Aspen, Colo., made international headlines with its epidemic of black bear break-ins: between July and September police fielded 460 reports of black bears within the city, and across Colorado, wildlife officials were forced to kill 40 bears.

The glut of bear incidents prompted Colorado wildlife officials to, you guessed it, beg locals to start bear hazing:

Wildlife officials are begging anyone who encounters a bear in an urban setting to be mean to it: Shout, throw rocks -- anything to make the animals associate people with fear and discomfort instead of greasy treats.

Perhaps this will be the year when bear hazing enters the public consciousness. It’s already entered the 21st century: Alex Tiger, of Green Pond, N.J., has launched an iPhone app that will do your hazing for you.

Too bad it won’t lock the garbage can, too.