WildSafeBC: Honk for the bears, honk for the humans

EDITOR’S NOTE: A limited run of “Honk at Bears” bumperstickers are available at the Westerly News, Gray Whale Deli, OCN Garden Centre and Remote Passages. Suggested donation is $5, donation proceeds go to West Coast bear-safe education through WildSafeBC.

Seeing black bears (Ursus americanus) is always a treat, even if it happens to be by the side of a well traveled road. These animals captivate our attention with their large size, playful ears and thick black or dark brown fur. A bear’s loping gate can bring to mind a sense of prehistoric power and awe.

Sightings of black bears alongside highways and roads are common all over British Columbia, and especially common in our Pacific Rim region.

In the spring bears frequently feed on new grass shoots and emerging buds from roadside shrubs that are common in the disturbed habitat. In the summer months bears might wander along a roadside to find berry bushes at the edge of the forest, or use the

open area as a corridor to get from one food source to another.

Hopefully, when you see a bear at the side of the road it will be a truly wild bear, not a bear that has been habituated to humans.

Habituation is a process that happens when animals are in

See HONK page 19 regular contact with people without any consequence. Habituated animals aren’t in themselves a bad thing (it’s certainly not the animal’s fault that they don’t mind people!), but habituated animals are more likely to come into conflict with humans because they don’t see people as a threat.

Animals that don’t see people as a threat also run the risk of becoming food conditioned; they start to rely on human sources of food to survive.

Habituation often leads to food conditioning, because the animal’s

lack of fear towards humans means they are willing to wander into yards, sheds and sometimes homes to find food. If a bear is severely food conditioned, it becomes a serious risk to human safety and is destroyed.

Pulling over to the side of the road to get a photo or a video clip of a bear might seem like a harmless act in the moment.

With a nice wide shoulder on an empty road, it doesn’t seem like a destructive act. Unfortunately, that photo opportunity is quite See HONK page xxx often the start of a slippery slope towards habituation. And as we learned above, habituation often leads to food conditioning. And food conditioning will eventually lead to the bear’s destruction. This cycle is exacerbated if the bear is having a hard time finding food in the wild (this year’s poor salmonberry fruiting is a good

example). So the next time you see a bear at the side of the road, I respectfully submit that you keep driving. You may even choose to honk in an attempt to scare the bear away from the roadside.

Biologists refer to this strategy as (commonly called hazing). Honking to haze a bear will work to jolt the bear away from the road after the first few instances, but biologists have noticed that bears will eventually become conditioned to honking. After a few honks, the noise will have little impact.

Which leads us to the age-old dilemma: To honk, or not to honk, that is the question. Like most things in Shakespeare and the natural world, the answer is up for debate. My personal strategy is to use one loud honk if cars are pulled over and beginning the cycle of habituation > food conditioning >

destruction. Like Hamlet’s soliloquy, I hope my horn will lead these gawkers to question the potential consequences of their actions. And if the bear is wandering down the side of the road with its head in the grass, I simply enjoy the view and drive right by.

John Platenius is the Pacific Rim WildSafeBC Community Coordinator. WildSafeBC is a program designed to reduce human-wildlife conflict through education, innovation and cooperation.