Effects on bears

Based on WSPA’s working definition of Human Bear Conflict (HBC), it is clear that conflict situations can have serious negative consequences for:

1. Animal welfare
2. Wildlife conservation
3. Environmental and habitat protection

Read about how HBC affects people >>

Animal welfare

Substandard captive conditions, Romania
Substandard captive conditions, Romania © Vasile Siladi

When poor-welfare reactions to conflict occur, bears are: inhumanely trapped (before being inhumanely killed); injured; killed; or placed in unsuitable captivity as a ‘quick fix’ to protect people and property. These retaliatory activities take place worldwide and impact severely on bear welfare.

When the focus of a potentially fatal HBC retaliation is a female bear with young, the cubs may also be orphaned. Depending on their age, motherless cubs will have a low probability of survival, magnifying the impact on wild bear welfare.

Gathering accurate information on bear welfare in areas where HBC occurs presents challenges; these include:

  • lack of information on incidences  of conflict
  • individuals’ reluctance to report bear-related injuries or deaths in areas where wildlife is protected.

Trapping and shooting are two common responses to the perceived threat of ‘conflict bears’.

Effects on individual bear welfare: trapping

Bear traps (e.g. box traps and snares) are primarily used by two groups.

  1. They are used by people affected by HBC but inexperienced in bear management, usually in an effort to kill the ‘conflict bear’ outright. Their actions can negatively affect animal welfare in two ways: by killing a bear inhumanely, or by leaving a live bear to struggle to free itself, causing serious injury or a slower death. Additionally, the original cause of the HBC is not addressed by the removal of one bear. For these reasons, trapping should only be conducted by professional bear managers and experts.
  2. They are used by experienced professionals seeking to manage HBC (e.g. attempting research or relocation). But even when experts are involved, the use of traps still needs to be limited, as they can adversely affect welfare in a second way. In some cases, traps provide a painless food source, meaning some bears become ‘trap happy’ and view bait as accessible food source with few consequences. In these instances, the trap has failed to discourage the bear from the area as intended and the potential for conflict continues.

Regardless of the reason for using a trap or who sets it, scientific studies show that if trapping isn’t done properly, it can severely compromise animal welfare. Poorly managed and inexpert trapping has the potential to cause:

  • external injuries include abrasions and lesions that occur as animals struggle to release themselves
  • extreme physiological and psychological stress is strongly indicated by high concentrations of cortisol and damage to red blood cells, depletion of carbohydrate resources for powering muscles, disruption of muscle tissue and elevated secretion of beta-endorphins
  • starvation or even predation from other scavengers (including other bears) are likely if the snare is not checked on a regular basis; if the snare is checked, an inexpert shooting may add to the bear’s suffering before death
  • ability to survive will be compromised for those bears that escape with a damaged limb.

Trapping is a last resort for responsible bear managers and wildlife authorities, and with training experts can minimise the impact on wild bear welfare. As circumstances where lethal action may be necessary to protect human life do occur, the argument for expert teams (trained in welfare and wildlife management) to handle these scenarios is strong.

Effects on individual bear welfare: unprofessional shooting

The main welfare issues arising from shooting are:

  • the accuracy of the shot – a bear may be maimed but not killed, impeding its ability to survive
  • the time lapse between the animal being shot and subsequent death.

Both these factors are affected by the distance of the shooter (often a local stakeholder, such as a farmer) from the animal and their lack of awareness about placing shots to ensure a quick humane death.

While no reliable data on bears wounded by shooting is available, studies focused on the shooting of wild deer by experienced marksmen indicate that on average 11 per cent 1 of animals require two or more shots to ensure a quick death.

Studies have also claimed that at least 5 per cent of stalked animals escape wounded 2 and experience great suffering (in both intensity and duration) until they die or recover from their wounds.

Shooting is a last resort for responsible bear managers and wildlife authorities, and with training experts can minimise the impact on wild bear welfare. As circumstances where lethal action may be necessary to protect human life do occur, the argument for expert teams (trained in welfare and wildlife management) to handle these scenarios is strong.

Wildlife conservation

Human Bear Conflict (HBC) involves all eight species of bears and occurs across much of Europe, Asia, North America and the South American Andes. Although the status of bear populations in these regions vary widely (primarily due to local habitat conditions), currently six bear species are considered to be threatened by extinction (see IUCN red list 2010).

In almost all countries where bears occur, the populations are either legally managed and/or protected by national laws and/or international agreements. However, WSPA has found that these are not consistently respected by the people directly affected by HBC situations.

Authorities in the areas affected by incidences of HBC may exempt animals perceived to be causing damage to people or property from protected status, leaving them vulnerable to ad-hoc and lethal retaliatory responses. These responses, which do not form part of a holistic conflict reduction programme, can:

  • speed the elimination of bears from the landscape
  • alter natural behaviour (such as selection of den sites)
  • displace key individuals and disrupt the organisational structure of a given bear population.

Environmental and habitat protection

Humans are becoming increasingly aware of the need to retain and protect ecosystems, with the consequences for failure inducing climate change and the loss of biodiversity and natural resources.

Removing a large predator from an environment has serious ramifications, as they affect the types and numbers of other species in an ecosystem. As a ‘keystone’ species, a significant alteration in bear population size or density could have impact beyond that their numbers might suggest.

Grizzly bear, USA © Jitze   Couperus
Grizzly bear, USA © Jitze Couperus

Keystone case study:

The grizzly bear passes nutrients from a distant ocean ecosystem to the forests of North America through their salmon consumption – partially eaten carcasses and bear droppings feed the soil. Salmon swim for hundreds of miles; but without the grizzly, nutrients from the ocean would not reach the forest floor and contribute to the forest ecosystem.

1 Bateson, P. (1997) The Behavioural and Physiological Effects of Culling Red Deer . The National Trust: London. See summary: www.huntinginquiry.gov.uk/evidence/broomreport.htm

2 Bateson, P. (1997) The Behavioural and Physiological Effects of Culling Red Deer . The National Trust: London. See summary: www.huntinginquiry.gov.uk/evidence/broomreport.htm