Southwest Environment

Stories written by University of Arizona students

Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science
The Stories

Managing bears and people in wildland environments

By Eric Wagner

The U.S. Forest Service posts signs, such as this one in the Coronado National Forest near Mount Lemmon, to help educate the public on proper bear safety etiquette. http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnjoh/470942650/Near the top of Mount Lemmon, a peak north of Tucson Arizona in the Coronado National Forest, sunshine filters through a stand of ponderosa pine. Long pine needles scatter the light, illuminating a forest floor adorned with grasses, wildflowers and elderberry, a favorite food of the elusive black bear.

Under the gently swaying green canopy stands a seven-foot-tall map of official hiking trails. A subsection reads, “Bear Country.” Yet bear attacks within the last few decades have led to management practices that have made Mount Lemmon bear sightings rare.

“We have not seen black bears in years,” said Jenni Zimmerman, a long-time resident of the Mount Lemmon community of Summerhaven. 

After a 1996 attack left a young woman “permanently disfigured” by a “340-pound, 5-year old black bear” on Mount Lemmon – and left the Arizona Game and Fish Department with a $2.5 million settlement bill – the department adopted a new “Wildlife Conflict Strategy” to manage Coronado National Forest black bears, according to a 2009 AZGFD report.

The 1996 attack was not an isolated incident; other black bear attacks in Arizona have played into the formation of the new management practices. A camper in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson was reportedly airlifted and hospitalized after a black bear dragged him from his campsite in his sleep. A 2011 attack in the town of Pinetop in northern Arizona left a woman in serious condition after a bear mauled her while she was walking her dogs. 

Melinda Fisher, the acting district wildlife biologist for the Douglas Ranger District within the Coronado National Forest, said establishing a safer relationship between bears and visitors “will take a shift in how people view bears and how they conduct their recreation actions.” 

Fisher believes that careless littering and the improper storage of food by hikers and campers give bears the opportunity to cross the line between safe and dangerous contact with humans.

According to William Shaw, a professor of wildlife management in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Arizona, “the main challenge is to manage human behavior.”

Wildlife managers use a variety of methods to manage both human and bear activities. Public awareness initiatives and the direct management of bear populations, according to Shaw, are important tools in informing the public as well as protecting both bears and park visitors.  

Shaw believes that wildlife managers “deal with (bears) very seriously,” adding, “now if you’re in Yellowstone, Yosemite or Glacier,” due to modern management practices, “you probably won’t see a bear.”

Managing ‘problem’ bears
If an animal does become a problem, officials will deal with it “as soon as they begin coming to campgrounds,” Shaw said, “before they get somebody hurt.”

The AZGFD’s 2009 strategy report validates Shaw’s statement and describes the agency’s three-category system, adopted in 2006, to streamline its bear management plan. This system was put into place to effectively manage what the agency calls “food-conditioned nuisance bears,” referring to an animal that prefers to consume human food. According to the document, the categories are as follows: 

Category One bears may have “caused human injury,” displayed “aggressive behavior,” or have been “previously captured and relocated because of conflicts with humans.”

“Repeat offenders that are becoming accustomed to human provided food, would be translocated,” Shaw said. Translocation is the removal of an animal from one environment to another that is presumed more suitable.

Relocation is a common method in dealing with problem animals but Shaw has his doubts about the effectiveness of these efforts, saying that bears sometimes “come right back.”

If an animal is a persistent problem and relocation fails then Shaw said the animal “would be euthanized.” If this method is necessary then Shaw reassures that “they would, of course, be put down humanely.”

A technique that Shaw refers to as “aversive conditioning” is a common method used to deal with Category Two bears. With this method, “you haze or harass the animal and see if you can teach it to fear humans,” Shaw said. (See the related story for more details.)

Photo by Tom Peck. Some rights reserved.
Black bears, such as these in the Huachuca Mountains of southeastern Arizona, are generally wary of human interactions and tend to keep their distance from curious outdoor enthusiasts.

Although naturally wary of humans, many black bears, which can weigh up to 350 pounds, have become accustomed to human interaction and the consumption of food left out or discarded by outdoor enthusiasts.

“When I was a kid and went to Yellowstone (in the 1950s), you would all line up at a traffic jam and you would feed a bear a piece of bread through a crack in the window,” said Shaw, “When dangerous animals begin to not fear humans, then that’s a red flag.” 

Randy Gimblett, a UA professor who studies the interactions between humans and wildlife in the environment, agreed and said bears “need to be viewed from a distance.” He added, “If people are backpacking or people are camping, they put themselves in a lot of danger because if they don’t use proper procedures with the storage of food and things they have, then animals can become a problem.” 

Fisher said the Forest Service encourages the use of bear containers for storing food and special bear-safe trash containers for the disposal of garbage. Bear-safe containers are made of metal, securely attached to the ground and have bear-proof handles to keep contents away from the paws of tempted animals.

According to the AZGFD, people visiting bear country should keep food away from their campsites either by using bear-safe containers or by using other methods such as hanging food off of a high limb in a tree. Bears are attracted by food and the AZGFD recommends that people visiting bear country use any precautions necessary to eliminate the smell or access of food by wildlife.

According to the AZGFD strategy document, “Conflicts are likely to occur at higher frequencies after prolonged periods of drought or natural forage shortages.” Droughts are common occurrences in the semi-arid climate of the Southwest.   

Educating the public

Shaw believes that public education is a “huge tool” that agencies have in keeping both bears and visitors safe. 

A 2004 Cornell University study investigating the success of bear management practices supported Shaw’s statement and found that education and prevention are “the most effective method of reducing human-bear conflicts."

Signs telling people, “Do not feed bears,” is one example of public awareness that Shaw said can be effective. Fisher agreed and added that Forest Service employees distribute literature, “speak with campers about being ‘Bear Aware,’ and do news releases about these same topics.”

Even the Arizona Game and Fish Department, according to the conservation strategy document, “prefers to use proactive approaches such as the Bear Aware program of information and education prior to conflict resolution.”

Shaw feels that enforcing anti-animal-feeding laws will help to minimize the number of problem bears. “If they find you deliberately feeding,” Shaw said, “you will be cited.”

“There was a period of time when people would deliberately put out food so that they could sit on their porch and watch the bears,” Shaw said. He feels that because of public awareness initiatives, bear feeding has become less popular.

“I don’t think that goes on much now,” he said. “Bear lovers appreciate the fact that if that’s what you’re going to do, then you’re actually going to be hurting the bear because sooner or later the bear is going to get in trouble.”


Eric Wagner is a University of Arizona student in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment. After he graduates in 2012, he plans to continue his education. 


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