Understanding Nuisance Behavior

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Photo bt Tristan Curry

Nuisance behaviors in bears are typically those that cause problems with people in and around homes, neighborhoods, or businesses. Generally, those behaviors include some form of attractant such as garbage, food scraps, pet food, birdfeeders, livestock feed, or other human-related items. The important thing to remember when dealing with nuisance behaviors, however, is that “problem bears” are not born- they are a product of their environment. Situations that invite bears into or near human dwellings can create cycles of behavior that can be very hard to break. Unfortunately, bears can become so tolerant and bold around people that issues of human safety arise. In those instances, bears may have to be trapped, relocated, or even killed.

When bears have ready access to human-related foods, two behavioral situations can arise that seriously affect the potential for future nuisance activity- food conditioning and habituation. If a bear has continued access to garbage in a neighborhood, for instance, it may become increasingly dependent on that food source. This behavior is the same as giving your pet a food reward for successfully completing a repetitive task. In the case of bears, the task is overturning a garbage can or climbing into a dumpster, and the reward is the food that is obtained. Without any negative stimuli, that bear will become increasingly “conditioned” to human food and more bold in its attempts to acquire those items.

Unfortunately, bears that become conditioned to human foods often develop a second and even more negative behavioral condition as a result of spending so much time around humans. This second trait is referred to as “habituation” to humans, and it is simply a loss of their natural fear of people. Once that fear is lost, bears may become day-active in search for food, approach people, and alter their home range to include human population centers. The sad truth, however, is that food-conditioned and habituated bears live considerably shorter lives as a result of so much time spent near people. Those bears often die prematurely as a result of vehicle collision, poaching, or euthanasia due to unacceptable behaviors around people.

Fortunately, all of these negative patterns of behavior can be prevented by eliminating access to human-related foods. Help protect Kentucky’s bears by being responsible and following our guidelines for living in bear country. Doing so will not only help us keep bears wild in Kentucky, but it just may save a bear’s life.

Click here to view a map of black bear vehicle collisions in Kentucky.