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.
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.
*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.