If people food is readily available, it’s just a matter of time before a bear comes exploring. If the bear has a positive experience (getting a food reward) without any negative consequences (being yelled at and chased off), it will try for what its enterprising bear-brain thinks might be an even bigger and better reward.

People tend to ignore these early stages of conflict, hoping the bear will eventually move on, or rationalizing that losing a bag of garbage or the occasional feeder full of bird seed isn’t so bad.

But ignoring a bear’s activity encourages it not only to continue, but to escalate. The longer people wait to report conflicts and remove attractants, the more likely it is that some bears will push past the limits of tolerance and destroy property or threaten humans. And when agencies have to choose between the safety of people and the lives of bears, people must come first.

This step-by-step experimentation that starts with stumbling across some sort of human-provided food reward and ends with lights out for the bear is what biologists call “the behavioral ladder of progression.”

Bear Behavorial Ladder graphic

The Bear Behavioral Ladder of Progression

A step-by-step journey from wary beginning to untimely end

  • Smell something interesting. Follow nose to people place. Food smells good, but people might be dangerous. Wait until dark to explore.
  • Gobble up birdseed on ground. Knock down feeder, eat lots more. Run back to the woods.
  • Come back a few nights later. Feeder is full again! Chow down. Follow nose onto deck.
  • Jackpot! Find garbage by back door. Open, scatter and eat. Score a day’s worth of calories. Plan to return often to this new food bonanza. Amble back to the woods.
  • Explore the neighborhood. Get much fatter much faster than you could foraging in the woods.
  • Start coming during the day since food supply seems endless and humans appear to be harmless.
  • Find open garage, knock over refrigerator. Eat pizza and ice cream. Score a week’s worth of calories.
  • Do enough damage to get reported. Make the news.
  • Start approaching people, looking for food. Get trapped, ear-tagged and hauled away.
  • Find your way back. Yummy treats still there! Pick up where you left off.
  • Scare someone putting out the trash.
  • Get labeled a threat to human safety.
  • Get killed way before your time.

And that makes room for another bear that smells something interesting.

For more information, read Living with Bears Handbook by Linda Masterson. Also visit: LivingWithBears.com