When Oregon state officials killed a black bear that had become “too habituated” with humans on June 13, people across the nation expressed outrage. Many questioned why the animal wasn’t relocated, while others found irony in the fact that the animal was only deemed dangerous because humans made it so.
Still, the animal is not the first — and won’t be last — black bear to be killed in the US. According to Western Wildlife Outreach, 50,000 black bears are legally hunted in North America each year, while another unknown amount is illegally poached.
The practice is not met without controversy, of course, but it’s still widespread. Many people believe bear hunts are necessary to control populations and protect humans, though others feel the practice is inhumane and cruel.
In reality, however, the common killing of black bears does little but spread inaccurate messages about how humans can coexist with the species.
Black bears are the most commonly found bear in North America
Amongst brown bears and grizzlies, black bears are the most commonly found throughout North America, according to National Geographic. Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation organization, estimates the North American population of the species to be approximately 600,000. Half of that number is said to reside in the US.
The animals can live for up to 20 years old in the wild, according to National Geographic, and typically roam alone across vast territories. Male black bears are said to be especially solitary, while females become more protective when mothering cubs during their first two years of life.
It’s also a common misconception that black bears are naturally aggressive. According to the North American Bear Center, most black bears typically approach humans out of curiosity— not dominance — and can be scared away with a simple yell or clap.
Black bears also have no interest in eating humans, as they prefer roots, insects, and small mammals, according to National Geographic.
A black bear was recently killed in Oregon after it had become accustomed to humans who fed it
On June 13, Oregon state officials killed a young black bear that they said had become “too habituated” with humans, according to the Statesman Journal. The bear is said to have been between the ages of 2 and 3 years old, and was frequently fed by humans who would pose for selfies with the animal as it ate.
Days before its death, the animal was spotted on multiple occasions in close proximity to humans, according to the Statesman Journal. It was even seen “eating trail mix, sunflower seeds, and cracked corn” alongside other food that was intentionally left by humans.
Local police shared a photo of the bear on Twitter and asked residents to be vigilant and stay away from the area.
“Deputies are working to get this bear cub near Hagg Lake to go back into the woods… please stay away from the area near Boat Ramp A,” the tweet from Washington County Sheriff’s Office said.
On June 14, Oregon state officials confirmed via Twitter that they had killed the bear. Rick Swart, a member of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Statesman Journal that the decision was influenced by past cases in which he said habituated bears were relocated and placed into situations that were more dangerous than where they came from.
People on social media were quick to criticize the decision and questioned why the animal wasn’t brought to a sanctuary.
Killing black bears is actually a common practice throughout the US
According to Western Wildlife Outreach, 50,000 black bears are legally hunted in North America each year. The species is also illegally poached by people who wish to take “their gall bladders, paws, claws, and genitalia for use in traditional Asian medicines,” according to Western Wildlife Outreach, though an exact number is unclear.
As for why the animals are hunted legally, three major factors often play a part. Officials in residential areas and parks, for example, will often kill individual “nuisance bears” that frequently interact with humans, as seen recently in Oregon.
In many other states, however, annual bear hunts are held to control the species’ population numbers, which are growing in most areas, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Wide Open Spaces, a website about the outdoors, says these growing populations have led to increased problems between bears and humans, leading many people to see the bears as “large raccoons” that are more of an “annoyance” than “top predator.”
Some states also use annual bear hunts to help maintain the populations of other animals, according to Wide Open Spaces.
“Believe it or not, a hungry bear that is fresh out of hibernation will follow deer and elk hearts in hopes of scouting out an easy feast,” Wide Open Spaces reported in 2016. “In areas that foster large bear populations, this can put a real damper on other wildlife populations that need those areas to thrive.”
Not everyone agrees that annual bear hunts are effective
Doris Lin, the director of legal affairs for the Animal Protection League of New Jersey, told NJ 101.5 in 2016 that bear populations are rarely cause for concern.
“The bear population is not a problem,” Lin previously told NJ 101.5. “People don’t care how many bears there are. What they care about is bears getting into their garbage cans, into their bird feeders, and cooking grills.”
“That can only be controlled with non-lethal methods because no matter how many bears there are, they’re going to be attracted to those barbecue grills and garbage cans,” she continued.
Lin also argued that hunters are “just going to keep hunting and hunting because that’s the goal — it’s sport hunting, it’s a trophy hunt.”
Humans can easily prevent most interactions with ‘nuisance bears’
According to the Humane Society of the United States, “nuisance bears” are typically young males or mothers with cubs, and are created by humans who allow the animals to find man-made food “without getting frightened away.” Bears “become less fearful” of people “each time this happens,” which can often lead to conflicts between the two species.
Issues between bears and humans also become more likely during hyperphagia, which is described by the Humane Society of the United States as “a feeding frenzy in late summer and fall” during which bears “bulk up for hibernation” and consume up to 20,000 calories a day. But humans don’t have to fear these conflicts.
The Humane Society of the United States says that keeping black bears away from man-made food will prevent them from becoming accustomed to people. Specifically, making trash cans inaccessible, “enclosing” compost piles, and storing recyclables indoors can stop bears from making house visits.
The organization also suggests removing bird feeders during the summer months, and keeping barbecue grills free from food residue, as even the smallest traces of food can attract black bears.
Annual bear hunts can ignore the actual problems occurring between bears and humans
Black Bear populations are generally rising throughout the US, but that’s not why people are seeing more of them. According to Western Wildlife Outreach, the construction of “housing developments and roads” often push black bears out of their natural habitats, and therefore away from their natural food.
As a result, many of the animals “will frequent municipal garbage dumps and household garbage cans” in search of something to eat. Not only does this lead to bears being labeled as nuisances, but it can also cause an increase in interactions between bears and humans.
A 2015 report from National Geographic says 49,000 incidents occurred between humans and bears in Florida between 1990 and 2014. Many of these conflicts included “encounters at close range, property damage, and perceived safety hazards,” while 200 of the bears were killed after colliding with vehicles.
But because the state has little room to relocate the animals, most “nuisance bears” were killed after encountering humans. In 2015, Florida also hosted a bear hunt during which 295 black bears were killed in just two days, according to National Geographic’s report from the same year. But, according to the Humane Society of the United States, these hunts do little to solve the actual problem at hand: bears interacting with humans.
“Hunters, trappers and wildlife control agents often remove the wrong bears — they kill the individuals not involved in nuisance behaviors,” the Humane Society of the United States says on its website. “Bear-resistant trash cans, hazing programs and other humane methods work better to solve problems.”
Kitty Block, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, told INSIDER that humans need to become ‘bear aware’
While annual bear hunts are controversial, Kitty Block, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, feels that killing individual “nuisance bears” is also ineffective.
“States like Oregon too frequently kill bears unnecessarily who come into human-dominated areas looking for food to survive,” Block told INSIDER. “Frequently, the bears are mothers with dependent cubs. When good responses are not in place, states often wrongly try to manage bear-human conflicts by raising bear-hunting quotas, hitting bears doubly hard.”
Rather than killing “nuisance bears,” Block suggests that “non-lethal tactics” should be used.
“Bear biologists strongly suggest that state wildlife agencies employ an escalating suite of non-lethal tactics that include aversive conditioning and relocation in response to bears exhibiting problem behaviors,” Block said. “Those non-lethal deterrents might include the use of Karelian bear dogs, rubber bullets, chemical irritants, noise making pyrotechnics, or just banging pots.”
“In the instance of this young Oregon bear, he or she could have been placed in a rehabilitation facility or even relocated away from this area where people had been feeding him or her,” she continued. “There was no warrant for the state’s action in killing the animal without first exhausting non-lethal options.”
In a previous tweet, representatives for the Washington Country Sheriff’s Office said it wouldn’t have been possible to relocate the bear.
“This was a tough decision the wildlife experts at the Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife had to make for the safety of everyone,” the Washington County Sheriff’s Office said on Twitter. “Relocation wasn’t an option in this case. Humans shouldn’t feed wild bears. It’s a very sad situation.”
Ultimately, Block believes that humans need to become “bear aware” before attempting to coexist with the species.
“People who live or seek recreation in bear country need to take steps to become ‘bear aware’ in order to prevent conflicts from occurring,” Block said. “Simple steps to prevent human-bear conflicts can include not feeding birds while bears are awake, cleaning up barbecue grills with ammonia, keeping a clean campsite or picnic space, and storing garbage containers appropriately at home and in the wild.”