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UBCO researchers look at solutions for bear habituation

A new study uses computer modelling to look at the best strategies to reduce human-bear conflict

The University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus researchers recently used computer modelling to simulate the movement of black bears and identify what attracts them to populated areas.

Conservationists have long warned of the dangers associated with bears becoming habituated to life in urban areas. Yet, the problem persists — a foraging bear enters a neighbourhood, easily finds high-value food and refuses to leave. The story often ends with conservation officers being forced to euthanize the animal for public safety purposes.

A new study by sustainability researchers in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science looks at the best strategies to reduce human-bear conflict.

Lael Parrott and a team of researchers, including master’s student Luke Crevier, built a computer model to simulate bears’ journeys within a specific urban area.

Using the resort municipality of Whistler as their area of inquiry and agent-based computer modelling, researchers were able to simulate the movement of black bears, identifying the potential attractants luring them in.

“Our model allows us to drop in large amounts of data, including the landscape’s spatial characteristics, movement patterns collected from GPS tracking of real bears, and other important information to essentially create a virtual landscape,” said Crevier.

Bears are attracted to what researchers call anthropogenic food — easily attainable food sources such as human garbage, berries or fruit.

The study’s findings reinforced the team’s expectations that using attractant reduction and human deterrent strategies together was the most effective way to keep bears away. In cases where only one strategy could be applied, reducing attractants was the most effective.

“What was really interesting was how the model allowed us to identify attractants that maybe otherwise wouldn’t be considered — like human garbage or large amounts of berries on private land within city limits,” Crevier explained.

A bear’s intelligence and memory are largely the reasons why reducing the availability of anthropogenic food is considered more effective than reactive management strategies that aim to deter bears, when used alone.

“Using deterrents like bear bangers may be effective temporarily in that the bear will get frightened and run away, but they won’t be gone for long,” explained Parrott. “They’ll remember being scared off, but their memories of the good meal will supersede their fear.”

This same type of modelling can be used for communities across Canada experiencing similar issues and it can be applied to other large predators like cougars or wolves.

Parrott also pointed out that it’s mostly juvenile or female bears with cubs entering communities because large males establish their territories in the forest. By putting these bears down, humans are selectively eliminating a particular part of the bear population.

Read the study here.

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