Field Journal: Living Alongside Bears

by AMNH on

From the Field posts

Rae Wynn-Grant is a conservation science research and teaching postdoctoral fellow jointly appointed with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation and the Museum's Education department. Her work explores the influence of human activity on large carnivore ecology. Dr. Wynn-Grant is currently studying the impacts of human activity on landscape use, habitat suitability, and habitat connectivity of black bears in Nevada, where she was conducting her research when she wrote this field journal last month.

We often think of bears as animals of the deep forest, but in many parts of North America, you can see black bear activity near human-dominated areas. My work in the Western Great Basin region of Nevada investigates the ecological and social drivers of human-bear conflict and how those conflicts impact the connectivity between black bear habitats there.

Carson Valley Nevada
A view of the Sierra Nevada mountain range from Carson Valley. This region of Nevada is more arid than the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, yet is still home to an abundance of wildlife. 
© R. Wynn-Grant

The Sierra Nevada mountain range near Lake Tahoe, where I conduct my research, is unique in that black bears were once entirely extirpated from the region. The last few decades, though, have seen a resurgence of the animals, migrating to the area from the western parts of the mountain range. Now, a population of between 400 and 500 bears is recolonizing this historic habitat.

Although this population increase is considered a conservation success, tremendous challenges to the species remain. Chief among them is the more pervasive human influence now present in the region.

Bear Sign
As human-bear conflicts become more common in this part of Nevada, the state's Department of Wildlife uses various measure to educate the public, including posting signs like these. 
© R. Wynn-Grant

Black bears are attracted to human food resources. While bears prepare for hibernation in the fall, they enter a state known as hyperphasia, during which they will consume upwards of 10,000 calories a day. During this time, hungry bears are more likely to venture into human areas in search of easily accessible food, raiding garbage cans and entering private property looking for a meal. These behaviors can be even more prevalent in drought years when there is less food available in the forest.

My research collaborators and I are investigating the way human activity influences black bear habitats and the mortality risk for these animals. Our main goal is to understand what types of human activity is tolerated by or attractive to bears, and which types are avoided. The results of these studies can help us make recommendations for wildlife management and policy that can prevent conflict between human populations and their ursine neighbors. 

Bear on camera trap
Camera traps help researchers identify areas frequented by bears.
© R. Wynn-Grant

If we can identify the most important habitat for bears, we can work to protect these areas from human development, so that the population can thrive. Further, if we identify areas that may be attractive to bears but are heavily used by humans, we can work to develop strategies to avoid human-bear conflicts in these areas.

To learn more about Dr. Wynn-Grant's work, read her other field posts, "Tracking and Trapping a Bear" and "How to Collar a Bear."