Bears Have Long Memories

Mother bear standing on rock. Her cub sits on the rock between her legs.Bear cubs are apt to reflect mom’s mood. When she’s relaxed, they are relaxed. When mom is alert and stressed, her cubs are on edge. Cubs also take a keen interest in anything that their mother investigates. In this way, they learn much about what to eat, where to find food, and many other survival skills. In this way, mother bears are teachers. However, mother bears may teach their cubs behaviors that lead to conflict with humans.

In a study recently published in the journal PLOS One, researchers from the University of Alberta found that behavior that leads to conflict with humans is not genetic. It is learned. Bears who were raised by mothers with a documented pattern of conflict with humans were more likely to be involved in conflict with humans as adult bears. The study identified 213 bears (118 males and 95 females) through DNA extracted from hair samples, then examined behavioral patterns in both father-offspring and mother-offspring relationships. The researchers concluded over 60% of offspring from “problem mothers” were likely to be “problem bears.”* In contrast, only 29% of bears from “problem fathers” were identified in bear-human conflicts. This was very similar to the percent of bears (30%) involved in bear-human conflict raised by mothers with no history of conflict with people. Since male bears have no role in raising cubs, the evidence in the study suggests that behavior leading to conflict with people is learned, not inherited through genes.

If you watch Katmai’s bearcams, you may be familiar with the escapades of 273 and her cub. These bears are famous for their curious and playful nature. Over the past two summers, they were prone to investigate almost anything that caught their attention. In 2015, they damaged buildings at Brooks Camp which prompted rangers to escalate their hazing techniques to deter them.

Tar paper shack surrounded by portable electric fence.

This building was damaged by 273 and cub in August 2015. I helped to erect the electric fence as a temporary deterrent to further damage.

They repeatedly damaged a sign near the bridge over Brooks River.

They caused wildlife technicians to photo-bomb a live chat on archeology.

They even played with unattended construction equipment.

I took the video of 273 and her cub with the construction equipment from inside a cabin last summer. Clearly, this family has demonstrated an interest in human objects and equipment. They are also relatively habituated to the presence of people. Since 273 has exposed her cub to people and buildings, does this increase the likelihood that the cub will repeat those behaviors when he becomes an independent bear? All signs point to yes.

I’ve long suspected that bears raised by highly human-habituated mothers are more likely to demonstrate high levels of habituation toward humans when they are adults. I’ve also suspected the same with bear-human conflict. If mom teaches her cubs to investigate human equipment or seek out human food, then the cubs are going to remember those experiences when they become independent bears. The study from Alberta provides some evidence to support my suspicions.

Does this mean that 273’s cub is destined to damage property at Brooks Camp? Not necessarily as long as rangers, lodge staff, and visitors at Brooks Camp are vigilant and actively work to eliminate conflict between bears and people. (Access to lots of natural food is extremely important too.)

Mother bears are teachers and cubs are students, but not everything cubs learn from mothers is advantageous in a world where habitat is increasingly crowded with people. Mother bears teach their cubs many survival skills, some of which can lead to conflict with humans. We can’t change the way bears live, nor should we. The onus is on us to act in ways that allow bears space to live and survive without learning behaviors that lead to conflict.

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*I discourage the use of “problem bears” as a term to describe bears involved in bear-human conflict. The term was used in the study, but this label stigmatizes bears in negative, anthropomorphic ways. These bears are only exploiting opportunities presented to them. The problem isn’t the bear. The problem is the temptations for conflict provided or caused by people.

12 thoughts on “Bears Have Long Memories

  1. Thanks Mike. That’s an interesting study. One of the things that really interests me about watching the Katmai bears is teasing out what is nature and what is nurture. (503 is a case in point and I am hugely interested in who his father is. He is another extremely curious bear, but from what I’ve seen, his curiosity is directed more at other bears than objects.)

    273 is a very playful sow. And part of play is exploration. She (and Velcro) can’t be blamed for that; that curiosity is what has enabled brown bears to thrive over such a vast historical range. And part of what caused humans to eliminate them from much of that range.

    I completely agree about the term ‘problem bear’. I have a similar problem with the term ‘good bug/bad bug’ and have spent years teaching people to think of organisms as being ‘in balance’ or ‘out of balance’ with their ecosystem. I hope that, as we begin to understand more about animals, ecosystems and natural processes, we will find more appropriate terminology that will help us better coexist.

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    • curiosity is what has enabled brown bears to thrive over such a vast historical range.

      That’s a really good point, and one that I should’ve included in the post. Curiosity is an inherited trait. The study seemed to show that bears learn to use their curiosity in ways that lead to bear-human conflict if their mothers were involved in it.

      I completely agree about the term ‘problem bear’. I have a similar problem with the term ‘good bug/bad bug’ and have spent years teaching people to think of organisms as being ‘in balance’ or ‘out of balance’ with their ecosystem.

      Yes, non-human organisms aren’t good or bad, they just are. We tend to judge animals by our standards or morals and ethics, which is inappropriate.

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    • That is not uncommon. Bears at Brooks River show a high level of tolerance and regulations at Brooks Camp allows people a great deal of autonomy. I’ve seen people who were understandably nervous about bears during the bear orientation show little respect for the animals’ space by the end of their visit. People habituate to bears far quicker than bears habituate to people. In July especially, rangers are nearly overwhelmed by the number of people at Brooks Camp and it is very, very difficult to ensure everyone behaves appropriately. In my opinion, the only way to truly ensure everyone consistently behaves in a manner that is best for the bears is to cap daily visitation, increase NPS staffing, or a combination of both. A better ranger to visitor ratio would create a better visitor experience and increase protection of wildlife.

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  2. Very interesting blog post Mike. Can I interject a potential “Devil’s Advocate” view point? Is it always such a bad thing that bears become human habituated? Are bears that are more human habituated, particularly sows that are raising cubs, necessarily a bad thing for human-bear conflict? As things stand now, it does not appear that visitation to Brooks Camp will be lessening any time soon, and it surely won’t disappear completely, so whether or not we like it, humans will always be there, and if bears want to use the area, they need to learn to deal with humans. (Again, this is Devil’s Advocate and not necessarily my point of view that humans belong there at the expense of the wildlife). But if we want to face reality, humans will continue to visit and occupy this space. Could it potentially be safer for both the bears and the humans to have bears that are human habituated? Sows that teach their offspring to become habituated to humans, may potentially damage buildings and play with human objects, but could the argument be made that they better are able to adapt and live with humans occupying their area? They expect the humans to be there, or in certain areas where they also have access to, so then both the bear and the human give each enough of a wide berth that you don’t have actual physical conflict between the bear and the human?

    In the case of Brooks Camp, if we take a look at a bear like 273 and her offspring, where she travels and takes her cub, it seems that both her and the cub almost always seem to expect humans to be, they are on the lookout for humans, even when they are “misbehaving” they seem to be alert for potential hazing as they may somewhat understand that they are doing something they should not be doing. But because they expect the humans to be where they are, there is some sort of natural co-existence between the bear and the human. Whereas, let’s take for example a bear such as 755 who has never been human habituated, he’s never seen walking on bear trails where humans would be, he rarely approaches the side of the river where the Falls platform is located, he only fishes the lip or approaches this side of the river after hours, etc. Could it be inferred that if 755 were to happen upon an human unexpectedly, because he is not human habituated, there may be a great likelihood for physical confrontation between himself and humans as he’s not expecting the humans to be where they are, or he feels threatened by them since he actively spends so much time trying to avoid them?

    I think that as much as we would all like to minimize the potential for human and bear interaction and conflict, I think that one thing that needs to be accepted is that now that humans have established quite a presence at Brooks, that there may be ways to create beneficial interactions between humans and bears that lessens the potential for physical conflicts or interactions between humans and bears. Maybe this is the only way this area will continue to sustain both the bears and the humans?

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    • Is it always such a bad thing that bears become human habituated? Are bears that are more human habituated, particularly sows that are raising cubs, necessarily a bad thing for human-bear conflict?

      It’s not necessarily a bad thing or unnatural. Habituation toward humans allows bears access to a greater amount of resources. At Brooks River for example, human-habituated bears can use areas in the river where people are noisy and abundant. Habituated bears are generally less defensive in the close proximity of people. This isn’t to say you can be close to a human-habituated bear safely in all situations, just that they tend to react less defensively within my experience.

      In a place like Brooks River, habituation is inevitable and shouldn’t always be seen as a negative, but if food and gear isn’t managed properly then human-habituated bears are exposed to increased opportunities for conflict. I used 273 as an example in the post, because she and her cub are frequently near people and buildings. If 273 ran at the sight of people, then it’s unlikely she would’ve become so curious about equipment strewn around Brooks River. The same can be said about 410, Holly, 94, and several other bears.

      We may have discussed this before on the bearcam chat, but bear viewing sites should also be managed so that non human-habituated bears also have access to the resources they need to survive. Some bears, for a myriad of reasons, never habituate to people. Those bears need the most space. People should be able to visit Brooks River, but we also have to consider that a human presence there has consequences for bears.

      Your thoughts are welcome as always. Never be shy about playing devil’s advocate.

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      • Are female bears generally more prone to becoming human habituated? As with the case at Brooks, it seems that the most habituated bears are bears such as 410, 409, 435 and 273. Those are all examples of female bears. Do you believe that perhaps female bears tend to be more human habituated, or tend to be able to adjust to human surroundings and human encroachment, because they are generally less aggressive in nature than male bears? What happens to male offspring of female bears that are human habituated? For example, the case of 273 and her current male offspring. She’s obviously human habituated and has been known through her lifespan to be curious about, and investigate, human objects. She’s obviously passed on the same curiosity factor to her male offspring as we see in the video you posted, or this past fall when everyone had left camp and both sow and cub were both seen chewing repeatedly on the lower river platform. When he is emancipated, will he tend to become more human habituated and continue to exhibit such behaviors such as curiosity towards human objects the way 273 does? Or, because he is a male bear, will he roam further away from his home territory and therefore lose the human habituation he’s had for his first 2 summers of life? We know that 503 was raised for 3 summers (1 with 402 and 2 with 435) by female bears that are tolerant of humans, as 503 remained around Brooks Camp last this past year when he was an independent bear, from what you saw, would you classify him as being a human habituated bear? Is his adopted sister, 719, considered a human habituated bear? Or is it too young for us to really know with these bears since they only became independent this year. What about 89, offspring of 435, would you consider him to be less and less human habituated as he grows older, hence why it seems that every year he seems to be around Brooks River less and less than he was as a cub? Is this became he is the male offspring of a human habituated bear? If he was the female offspring, would he have behaved differently? Perhaps we could look at an example such as 130 who was raised by 409, a human habituated female bear. Because 130 was a female cub who then stayed around Brooks Camp as an independent bear, did she exhibit more human habituation than say 89 did? Is this just because of the nature of the different bears, or may some of it have to do with being a male offspring as opposed to a female offspring? Perhaps we could look at the case of 83 and 868. They were male offspring both having grown up along the Brooks River their entire lives. Was their mother considered a human habituated bear? Both of them being male, are they considered human habituated? They certainly appear, as a cam viewer, to be male bears that are (were) more human habituated than say 856 is.

        (As a quick aside to your comment above — the video you showed us with 273 and her cub investigating the building supplies and pulling on the rope — did NPS staff ultimately “fix” the situation so that objects such as the rope that the male cub was pull on, weren’t left out or were better managed so that the temptation for the curious bears to investigate was removed? Later towards the end of the season, on the cams near the corner where the spit road comes toward the LR platform, we saw 132’s cubs and another cub (maybe 273’s or maybe 94’s, I can’t remember) investigate and pull out red rope that was left in one of the boats. Are the construction crews, NPS personnel, lodge personnel, tour operators who operate the boats, etc. given instruction and or reminders [if its after the fact], that human objects such as these should not be left out as a temptation for curious bears?)

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      • Do you believe that perhaps female bears tend to be more human habituated…?

        Anecdotally, this seems likely. At Brooks River, the area near the bridge and lodge is heavily used by people and far more female bears use the lower river area than adult males. In July, females may be forced to use this area because of competition with males for fishing spots at Brooks Falls. During the fall feeding period (September-October) catch rates at the river mouth are far higher than anywhere else so you would expect to find the most dominant males there, but very few male bears use the mouth of the river during hours when people are active. If competition between bears were the only factor in bear use of the lower river, then I would expect that we’d see far more males bears in the lower river in the fall since they can outmuscle and displace females, but we don’t.

        Evidently, male bears aren’t outcompeting females for fishing spots in the lower river in the fall. Something keeps many males from fishing in the there. People are most likely that “something.” I don’t know of any other significant factor. Studies by Tammy Olson and others in the late ’80s and early ‘90s were the first to document the affects of people on bears at Brooks River and my observations generally agree with those studies.

        As for the other bears you ask about, I would describe all of those that you list as showing at least a moderate level of human habituation. I’d rather avoid speculating on what each will do in the future. Some may become more habituated to people while others may change their habits and use areas with people less frequently. I think we’ll have to wait and see.

        With that being said, 83 and 868 were raised by a human-habituated female, 438 Flo, as were many of the other bears you list. If human-habituated mothers are more successful at raising offspring (and they do have a big advantage that non human-habituated bears don’t: greater access to food in the lower river area), then we can expect a higher proportion of human-habituated bears (males and females) at Brooks River with successive generations.

        Regarding the 273 and cub video, I recorded that on my last morning at Brooks Camp in July 2016, so I do not know if any thing was done to better secure the equipment. Everyone that you list is required some form of bear orientation so they understand the special circumstances they are working under.

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