If you’ve ever seen “The Revenant,” set 200 years ago, you probably remember when Leonardo DiCaprio’s frontiersman character meets a very angry bear in the wilderness. (If you haven’t seen the film, all you need to know is that it doesn’t end well for DiCaprio.)
An increase in bear populations is only part of the reason we’re seeing more bear encounters, however; there are also more people.
Fights between bears and humans might seem to be relics of a bygone era. But over the weekend, a California teenager charged at a black bear in her backyard to fend off an attack on her dogs. Astoundingly, she managed to knock the bear off a wall and bring her dogs to safety.
It would seem she didn’t hear the advice Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department gave last week to avoid fighting bears after a YouGov America poll found that 6 percent of those polled thought they would win in an unarmed fight against a grizzly bear.
The obvious question is: How do the authorities recommend you save your dog from a bear? Even the girl who pushed it admits it wasn’t a smart choice. There are a lot of factors to consider, but if your dog is not leashed and is already fighting with a bear, the only good course of action is to use bear spray.
The less obvious question is: Why is there a bear in a teen’s backyard to begin with? And in Los Angeles County, a couple of miles from a freeway, no less?
In fact, why are there so many bears in suburban areas? A bear in the nearby town of Monrovia made the news a few years back after he entered a backyard, broke into a garbage can and took a siesta in a tree, while a 400-pound bear visited the town last year to stroll from one trash can to another. In nearby La Crescenta, a man on his cellphone nearly walked into a 300-pound bear roaming the neighborhood, where bear sightings are “not unusual,” according to NBC Los Angeles’ Jonathan Lloyd.
If you’re thinking that back in the day you wouldn’t have seen a bear that close to a major metropolitan area, you’d probably be right. Because of overhunting, by 1950, the formerly widespread grizzly bear had been almost completely eliminated from the contiguous U.S. Grizzly bears were protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1975, and while there are far fewer of them today than there were 200 years ago, there are far more of them today than there were 50 years ago.
The other species of bear in the contiguous U.S., the black bear, has fared much better. While their numbers also declined after European settlement, there are estimated to be more black bears in North America today than when European settlers first arrived.
An increase in bear populations is only part of the reason we’re seeing more bear encounters, however; there are also more people, and they’re living in different places than they were before. There were nearly 130 million more Americans in 2020 than in 1970, and a bigger population means more land being used for homes.
Growth is especially high in the Intermountain West, where the population is expected to increase at double the country’s average rate. Many homes in this region are in areas where houses are interspersed with wild vegetation, and their proximity to the natural habitat of many animals leads to more human-wildlife interactions. The bear encounters I mentioned earlier took place in communities between Los Angeles and Angeles National Forest.
But viral videos of teenagers pushing bears off walls aren’t inevitable. Big-picture solutions for the problem of wild animals’ venturing into urban areas include ensuring that there is adequate habitat for animals outside these areas, carrying out population control of species that are overabundant through hunting or other means, installing deterrents of some sort to keep problematic animals away, conducting targeted removal of the few animals that inevitably make it past the deterrents and removing whatever attracts wildlife to the areas in the first place. For most animals, bears included, that’s garbage.
Bears like garbage so much that a combination of dry weather and easy access to trash has led bears in Nevada to wake up from winter hibernation on garbage days and then return to hibernating until garbage day the following week. If you throw it out, they will come.
Aspen, Boulder and Colorado Springs in Colorado have all passed ordinances requiring at least some residents to place garbage in bear-proof containers and to limit how long garbage is left on the curb. Bear-proof trash cans cost money, but so does trying to safely remove a 300-pound animal from your front yard or avoid one while trying to get to school or work in the morning.
For those bears that inevitably barrel through, taking them on in a fight to save your dog is never a good idea. You might consider yourself a “pet parent,” but your possible loss of a pet is nowhere near as devastating as the possible loss of your life to your parents, siblings, spouse and children. If you live in an area with bears, keep your trash in a bear-proof container — and keep your dog on a leash.