Humans are already notoriously grumpy about their neighbors, but affronts like ugly fences or loud music may feel like nothing compared to what scientists predict is coming: bears.
According to new research, as wild populations rebound, human-bear interactions are on the rise. How these interactions will play out depends on us and how willing we are to avoid conflict with wild animals.
Humans and bears are increasingly living in close quarters, explains Clayton Lamb, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia and the University of Montana. In part, that's because bear populations are bouncing back thanks to the end of large-scale, federally funded predator control programs. Most of these were aimed at wolves or coyotes, but also affected bears, he explains.
"Grizzly bears are expanding in Yellowstone, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, and Southwest Alberta Canada," Lamb tells Inverse .
Lamb's research, published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, gives us a detailed picture of how coexistence is going so far. So far it's not going well — mostly for the bears.
Lamb's team analyzed demographic data from 2,669 grizzly bears in British Columbia between 1979 and 201 and found that it takes 14 years for a bear to truly learn how to coexist with humans. But for every bear who makes it to that age, 29 in the cohort will die. In wilderness areas with less human influence, only four bears will die for the one that makes it to 14.
The closer humans and bears get, the more we're going to have to deal with one another, Lamb says. Bears are adapting as best they can, but humans are going to have to adjust for both the bears' sake and our own.
"We can either make changes to foster coexistence on these shared landscapes, or, if we choose not to adapt to sharing the landscape, we will likely continue to bump up against the frustrations of conflicts with carnivores," he says.
How to live with predators – Bears are already adapting to humans. Human-bear conflicts are reduced at night, and in response, bears in human-dominated areas increased their nocturnal behavior by between two and three percent per year once they passed the age of three, the study finds. That small increase was linked to a two to three percent increase in chances of survival per year, the study finds.
But humans aren't holding up their end of the bargain. Young bears still face 7.5 times higher mortality rates in human-dominated areas than in wilderness areas.
To improve those odds, humans must develop a "social tolerance" for predators, explains Lamb. That's as much a societal change as it is a psychological one.
Social tolerance for predators means that you're willing to tolerate sharp-toothed sharks in the waters or inquisitive bears in the woods. It's a willingness to see land as both your home and the home of a predator.
"People are increasingly willing to adapt their behaviors in a way that fosters coexistence with carnivores."
We're making incremental progress on the psychological front. A 2014 online survey found that most respondents still supported controlling predators to preserve livestock but, compared to 1995, they demonstrated a preference for non-lethal forms of animal control.
Additionally, research suggests that culling wild animals doesn't decrease conflict with humans in ways one might expect. A study from the South African region of Karoo found that culling additional leopards or caracals led to 27.7 percent and 5.7 percent increases in livestock losses respectively. (That said, culling wild dogs cut livestock losses).
Research like this is causing a shift, Lamb says.
"People are increasingly willing to adapt their behaviors in a way that fosters coexistence with carnivores," he says. People are also making more concrete changes to their lives to accommodate predators.
"Ironically, both of these changes are very much made of concrete too," he says.
To reduce car-predator interactions, humans can build crossings over and under highways — there are about 10,000 collisions with large wildlife in British Columbia per year.
Lamb also suggests thinking of smarter ways to dispose of roadkill. In British Columbia, roadkill is laid to rest placed in roadside gravel pits that attract bears and fencing those in may keep bears out. Instead of killing predators, humans can install electric fences in "attractants" like garbage dumps or livestock, or install bear-proof trash cans.
The ultimate goal of these interventions is to create subtle changes in our landscape that reduce chances for human-bear conflict rather than eliminate the predators from our midst entirely.
Why humans need to become better neighbors – Ironically, the best chance for bear survival is for more bears to immigrate to human-populated areas, which can keep bear populations up.
This study suggests that to maintain current population levels about one to two percent of bears need to immigrate from wilderness areas into the areas where bears are living with humans.
But for many, that will be a doomed mission: These bears "likely will die from people" the scientists write, but they're still essential to avoid the demise of the local population.
That means that humans need to do their part to make sure that these reinforcements are given the best chance to survive. Making tangible changes could help give bears a fighting chance. It can also help humans figure out how to live with our 700-pound, toothy neighbors.
Abstract: With a shrinking supply of wilderness and growing recognition that top predators can have a profound influence on ecosystems, the persistence of large carnivores in human-dominated landscapes has emerged as one of the greatest conservation challenges of our time. Carnivores fascinate society, yet these animals pose threats to people living near them, resulting in high rates of carnivore death near human settlements. We used 41 y of demographic data for more than 2,500 brown bears—one of the world’s most widely distributed and conflict-prone carnivores—to understand the behavioral and demographic mechanisms promoting carnivore coexistence in human-dominated landscapes. Bear mortality was high and unsustainable near people, but a human induced shift to nocturnality facilitated lower risks of bear mortality and rates of conflict with people. Despite these behavioral shifts, projected population growth rates for bears in human dominated areas revealed a source-sink dynamic. Despite some female bears successfully reproducing in the sink areas, bear persistence was reliant on a supply of immigrants from areas with minimal human influence (i.e., wilderness). Such mechanisms of coexistence reveal a striking paradox: Connectivity to wilderness areas supplies bears that likely will die from people, but these bears are essential to avert local extirpation. These insights suggest carnivores contribute to human–carnivore coexistence through behavioral and demographic mechanisms, and that connected wilderness is critical to sustain coexistence landscapes.