Learning in bear country: the journey to carnivore conflict mitigation

Co-existence – on whose terms?

Humans are eager for more nature in their lives. This is reflected in the movement to enhance natural spaces and the fight to bring back lost wildlife. People crave a sense of the wild as a counter-response to materialism.

Our planet’s large carnivores are at the center of this movement. They are charismatic symbols of the idea of returning nature to our lives and they represent the deeper wild that seems to be missing. However, this desire for the wild changes shape as soon as it arrives in one’s own backyard. Human encroachment has already resulted in negative interactions between people and carnivores globally, including destruction of livestock, property and human life. Despite the desire for wild spaces, when large carnivores and people share habitat, the carnivores often end up being perceived as a nuisance. For example, the powerful grizzly bear becomes more than an abstract wonder, it is viewed as a vicious killer on the jogging trail. The issue of human-carnivore conflict is compounded by the fact that large carnivores are disappearing along with the far-reaching ecological effects of their absence. Carnivores are an essential part of an ecosystems’ health. However, solutions to conserve them will be made in vain unless ownership and influence is transferred to the humans that are potentially in conflict with them. If there is any chance of true rewilding and large carnivore survival, practical conservation education is needed to mitigate conflicts between ourselves and these species.

Declining large carnivores 

We now know that the planet’s large carnivores do much more than deplete prey. They alter prey behaviour, reverse declines in vegetation, cool streams, enhance water quality and much more. The Wolves of Yellowstone story provides examples and lessons on the dynamics of these predators’ influence on trophic cascades.1 Yet, despite their power and prestige, such animals are in trouble. Of the world’s 31 largest carnivores, ranging from African wild dogs to snow leopards and polar bears, 61% are threatened, 77% are experiencing population declines, and on average they occupy only 41% of their historical range.2 In many countries, the large carnivore population has disappeared altogether, undoubtedly affecting the ecosystem in fundamental ways. A potential solution is reintroduction. Whether it is bringing the Eurasian lynx back to the United Kingdom or wolves back to Scotland, re-introducing large carnivores has potential to replenish landscapes that are devoid of the ecological havens we imagine. However, human carnivore conflict not only limits this proposed solution’s likelihood of success, but is also one of the major reasons that the species’ populations are threatened in the first place. It is, after all, the large carnivores experiencing human conflict that are most vulnerable to extinction.3

The global reach of carnivore conflict

Carnivores represent real and perceived threats to human wellbeing and livelihoods. Leopards in parts of India, lions in Sub-Saharan Africa, jaguars in Brazil… the examples are many. Yet this is not an issue solely pertaining to big cats or the developing world. Human carnivore conflict continues to find grounds in developed countries as well. In North America, it occurs with wolves, bears, coyotes and cougars. Growing up in black bear country, this issue was an undercurrent throughout my life. Countries that have already lost these predators now actively discuss the idea of reintroduction to revive their populations. Yet, when discussing the topic of releases, farmers and ranchers are often the first to declare that the animals will negatively affect their livelihood. Mitigation and prevention of conflict between these animals and humans needs to be addressed first. In my region in Canada black bears are often demonised for their destruction of property, and feared for the perceived threat to human safety. Research has shown that the main driver of conflict has always been and continues to be food availability.4 However, this has not been enough for understanding and mitigation. While evidence-based conservation is essential, there is a need to go beyond scientific papers. Despite the existing studies, whenever I speak of my own black bear project, long-term residents are the first ones to grumble under their breath… “Ugh. Bears? Really? Thank goodness they brought back the Spring bear hunt. Are you going to stop them from destroying my cottage?” If carnivore populations and their associated ecosystems are ever going to flourish, we need an accessible education-based mitigation strategy that addresses human attitudes and behaviour.

A black bear captured on a camera trap near a hiking trail.Photo: Sarah McAuley

Practical conservation education – a way forward

A bear behaviour presentation in my home town in Canada approached the human-bear conflict topic in a way that gave me hope for humans learning to appreciate and live alongside carnivores. Andy McMullen founded BEARWISE, a program that travels across North America providing educational presentations on bear behaviour and avoiding undesirable interactions.5 Our town had heard this kind of information before, and people had heard advice on how to avoid bears. But Andy’s presentation was different. It reached and engaged the audience that needed to hear it most. Andy closed the information gap between humans and conflict events. He was focused on how real the issue was to the town residents, and our role in causing and perpetuating it. In his words: “If you’re in Canada and you’re not standing in downtown Toronto, you’re in bear country.” The presentation was practical and interactive. It debunked Hollywood myths: No, a bear standing on its feet does not mean it’s going to attack you. Rather, they are likely trying to get a better look and to check you out. It was interactive, handing around plastic covered scat samples (including one filled with garbage) to explain what seeing different scat in the bush could mean. Andy even passed around a string of fast-food boxes to show how many we would need to eat to meet the black bears’ and grizzly bears’ energy requirements. The string encompassed the entire room. Ultimately he made the whole audience see why the issue was a two-way street. He ensured that our role was unquestionably well-defined – our bird seed, our dirty BBQs, our pet food, and of course our garbage. By the end of the presentation it was clear that we needed to accept the consequences of our actions. We have, after all, chosen to live in prime habitats that these species have thrived in for longer than we have. At the end of the night, people aged 16-80 left the room feeling positive, geared up for prevention and respectful of these creatures that we share our world with.

Bear scat containing human food and garbage.Photo: Sarah McAuley

Responsibility, ownership and solutions

In a world of disappearing carnivores alongside recommendations to reintroduce them across the globe, practical conservation education is the way forward. This does not mean only speaking to a group about the role of carnivores in their environment. It means practical, impactful forums that reach the audience that needs to hear it the most, handing responsibility to the relevant sector of people to take action to avoid human food scavenging by predators and promote coexistence with these carnivores. Advice and outreach such as provided by BEARWISE needs tailoring locally in every situation of potential carnivore conflict, for every audience. This will help minimise the real driver behind carnivore decline and conflict – our behaviour. It isn’t until we change our attitudes and actions that anything will change. As Richard Coniff said about predators, “if they are not gods, they are at least the great drivers of ecosystems”.6References and notes

  1. Monbiot, G. (2013, July) George Monbiot: For more wonder, rewild the world. [Video file] Available from:

https://www.ted.com/talks/george_monbiot_for_more_wonder_rewild_the_world/up-next (Accessed 3 May 2017).

  1. Ripple, W.J. et al. (2014) Status and Ecological Effects of the World’s Largest Carnivores. Science 343: 6167: 1241484-1-124184-11. Available from: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/343/6167/1241484 (Accessed 3 May 2017).
  2. Woodroffe, R. (2001). Strategies for carnivore conservation: lessons from contemporary extinctions. In: Carnivore conservation. (eds. Gittleman, J.L., Funk, S., Macdonald, D.W. & Wayne, R.K.) pp. 61-92. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
  3. Obbard, M.E. et al. (2014). Relationships among food availability, harvest, and human-bear conflict at landscape scales in Ontario, Canada. Ursus 25: 2: 98-110.
  4. Andy McMullen’s BEARWISE (2017). Bear Web Development. [online] http://bearwise.ca/.
  5. Conniff, R. Learning to Live with Leopards. National Geographic. 10th November 2015. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/12/leopards-moving-to-cities-text.


The author is a student enrolled in the University of Oxford’s Ecological Survey Techniques PGCert programme and is currently conducting her research project on black bears in Ontario, Canada.

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Mcauley, Sarah “Learning in bear country: the journey to carnivore conflict mitigation” ECOS vol. 38(4), 2017, British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/learning-in-bear-country-the-journey-to-carnivore-conflict-mitigation/.

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