Are bears bad by nature or nurture? Researchers are trying to understand if some of these animals have a genetic predisposition for bad behaviors (such as raiding garbage cans, and breaking into homes and cars) or if they simply learn them from their parents.
The problem is that once bears get to comfortable around humans and stop fearing being near us, wildlife officials usually kill them in order to prevent them from hurting people. And the black bear population isn’t what it used to be.
The issue isn’t a new one but it’s been making headlines lately due to a mama bear at Lake Tahoe. The 19 year old has a well documented history of bad behavior, and field experts are now saying that she will always pass along this attitude to her cubs, and that the young bears will not be able to avoid repeating her mistakes as long as people keep leaving food and garbage in the bears’ reach.
Nevada wildlife officials had to euthanize a young cub just last week and they noticed an alarming pattern – the bear was the third offspring of the 19 year old problem bear to imitate her bad behavior. While the mama bear doesn’t have a name, wildlife officials are referring to her by her number – Green 108.
Carl Lackey, wildlife biologist from the Nevada Department of Wildlife, gave a statement saying that Green 108 is “kind of a chronic, nuisance-type bear. She’s always been getting into trash, always been in the same area. We’ve captured several litters of hers. We’ve captured her several times”. But the problem persists.
Lackey also co-authored a study polished back in 2008, in the Journal of Mammalogy. He and his colleagues looked at the role that genetics play in bear conflict behavior.
The wildlife biologist explained that back then the research team pretty much reached the conclusion “that genetics alone could not explain a nuisance behavior in black bears”. But that doesn’t mean that parent bears aren’t responsible for the behaviors of their cubs.
An older study, conducted way back in 1989 by researchers from the National Park Service suggested that Yellowstone’s grizzly bears inherited their bad behaviors from their mothers, and continued to be passed down from generation to generation. However the researchers couldn’t tell if the bad behaviors were in the genes or if young cubs learned them from their parents.
And another study conducted in 2008 by two (2) researchers from Yosemite’s Division of Resources Management, Victoria Seher and Rachel Mazur, offered proof that bad bears actively tutor their young cubs to look for food in human environments. They came to the conclusion that this is a skill set that old bears teach young bears.
One of the most powerful notes in this study is that the research duo has “observed sows pushing cubs into buildings and vehicles to retrieve food rewards”.
Lackey also had a similar experience. He noticed that the Tahoe bears that wildlife officials have caught and then released back into the environment, have learned to avoid bear traps.
And Chris Healy, spokesman for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, gave a statement saying that he witnessed mama bears growling at their cubs when they approach bear traps. This scares the young animals and they back away from the traps.
Healy believes that the only way to deal with the bear problem is to deal with the garbage problem. If bears can’t get access to human garbage, they’ll learn that there’s no food for them there.
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