The United States is home to nearly half a million black bears. And the population is growing.
Under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, the American black bear is ranked as a species of least concern. So why are people so upset about a dozen “nuisance bears” killed in mountain towns each year?
On the one hand, there are the bear huggers. Those who can’t resist their soft brown eyes and comically long tongues. And there are those who can’t resist a celebrity bear, bolstering him up as an icon of the community meant to showcase wildness.
But there’s another, more important reason for us to care about black bears, and it took traveling across the western part of the continent before someone would lay the case for black bear management wide open.
Unsurprisingly, it came from Jon Beckmann—the man who has dedicated his life to black bear research in the West, and who recognized the growing problem of bears in mountain towns before almost anyone.
Next to Carl Lackey, Beckmann appeared soft spoken on the day I met him in Lake Tahoe. It’s not the individual that matters, he explained succinctly. It’s the population.
There are eight species of bears globally—the spectacled bear, the Asiatic black bear, the Malayan sun bear, the polar bear, the giant panda, the sloth bear, the brown bear, and the American black bear. The only one of those that is not considered endangered, threatened or vulnerable, either globally or locally, is the American black bear.
“If people really want to worry about bears, then we need to be worrying about the other seven species,” Beckmann explains.
In short, black bears give conservationists a model to work with. By learning to peacefully coexist with black bears, there’s a greater chance we’ll be able to learn to live with other predators as they return to their historic ranges.
“If we can’t live with black bears, how are we going to live with grizzlies?" Beckmann asks. “It’s one thing to have a black bear in a house, but it’s a whole different ball game to have a grizzly in a house. That’s starting to happen.”
In the coming months, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to issue its second proposal to remove Yellowstone’s grizzlies from the Endangered Species list—a spot they’ve comfortably held onto since 1975, when only 200 remained in the region. Now, there are roughly 780 in the Yellowstone area. And they’re starting to expand outward.
“Up in Yellowstone you’ve got bears coming out of the core areas in Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone, coming across the high divide of southwest Montana and southeast Idaho, into the prairies and they’re experiencing the same issues.”
Fortunately, scientists have been able to use the data from human conflict with black bears to try to model what will happen as grizzlies continue to leave parks and enter agricultural communities.
But despite the tension that exists in the data, and in the Tahoe Basin, Beckmann isn’t overly perturbed.
“What I tell people is Nevada is a success story. You’re seeing a recovery of a species that’s been absent in some places for 80 to 100 years. And it’s because of the science-based management that that’s happening. Ultimately, what we want to see in wildlife management are more and more success stories like that.”
This project was made possible with funding from the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado, and the Center for Environmental Journalism.
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