BY MARK WALLACE
The pager alerted just AS daylight was approaching. The dispatcher called it a “wildlife assist.” A bear was in a tree next to the Golden Hotel, at the edge of the 12th Street Historic District and downtown Golden, Colorado. The tree is just three blocks from Coors Brewery and a hundred feet or so from the banks of Clear Creek. About 10 minutes earlier, my dogs had started barking wildly, and I saw the black shape of the bear lumber down my alley. I grabbed my camera as I headed out the door.
The entire on-duty police force had the 150-pound adolescent bear surrounded. Shotguns were at the ready, and spotlights were shining on the bear. The red lights of the patrol cars were flashing wildly. Bears are taught to climb a tree for protection when they become afraid. The terrified bear was 12 feet up the maple tree, probably wondering what he did to deserve all this attention.
It’s happening more and more these days in many locations around the country. The rapid urbanization of our wildland areas is creating confrontations between community residents and the wildlife that had called our new neighborhoods home a relatively short time before.
In some parts of the country, we are having our third consecutive mild winter. Mild winters allow more wild animals to survive through the winter season. Drought conditions in some areas of the country have limited the natural food supply of many wild animals. In Colorado, both conditions were present at the same time. With more animals living near the rapidly expanding urban-interface areas, we have more to deal with than defensible spaces and protection areas against the wildfire hazards we face. To compensate, our wild neighbors must travel greater distances and take more risks by occasionally entering urban areas to find food.
In any case, we end up assisting with a variety of wildlife interactions with the people in our communities. The type of wildlife you will encounter and how often depend on your location. In some areas of the country, such interactions are a part of daily life and few people take much no-tice when a six-point bull elk is napping in the front yard. For others, such an en-counter is a novelty that draws a crowd.
HANDLING THE EMERGENCY
When the animal involved is a bear or even a mountain lion, obviously, the danger is heightened. It is easy to overreact and endanger community members or the animal. Wildlife officials are best qualified to deal with such situations. Every state’s wildlife officers have a set of policies and special equipment they use for such situations. Since these incidents often take hours to resolve effectively, firefighters are often asked to help so that police officers can get back out on the street to fight crime and deal with their ever-increasing call load. The outcome will determine whether you will receive accolades from a grateful community or severe criticism.
In most cases, the call will create a great deal of media attention. There will be a loud outcry not to hurt the animal, and there will be some pressure to minimize the number of personnel and time involved in resolving the incident. Although the wildlife authorities will be in command of the incident and have the authority to control it, they often do not have sufficient personnel available to meet all of the incident’s competing demands. So, there is a delicate balance between protecting the community from the wild animal and protecting the animal from the hazards of the community. Patience and self-control are needed for success.
Some questions need to be answered before the proper course of action can be determined. In the case of a bear, you must ascertain whether the bear has been in some mischief in the community: Has the bear gotten into trash, broken into homes, confronted people, or acted aggressively? Bears that engage in these activities are deemed “problem bears.” In Colorado, the Division of Wildlife has a “two-strike” policy. Problem bears are tranquilized, tagged with ear tags, and moved to a “safe” area. If a tagged bear gets into trouble again, it is killed. It is called “euthanizing” the bear, but the bear is still dead.
On the other hand, if a bear has not displayed any of the “problem” bear behaviors, it should be given every possible opportunity to move out of the urban area without being tranquilized and tagged. Such was the case with the Golden black bear. This little bear never did anything that could be construed as a problem. He wandered around town, was scared up into trees, and foraged for food. Golden is the home of fairly old neighborhoods with lots of new subdivisions encroaching on the open spaces that surround the city. The old neighborhoods contain lots of fruit trees, especially apple trees. This poor little bear, who had likely been shunned by its mother for the first time so it could make it on its own as an adult bear, was simply hungry. In Golden, he found apple trees. The worst thing he did was break a few small branches off a tree and eat some prized apples from other trees. He did not deserve to be given his first strike.
GETTING THE BEAR TO MOVE IN THE DESIRED DIRECTION
In this case, the goal was to move the bear to an area out of town. To accomplish this, the responders carefully planned a route by which the bear could leave town. Bears will do anything possible to remain concealed from view and will climb the first available tree when frightened. They will attempt to escape by sneaking into a hidden alleyway or finding an area hidden from people.
By planning carefully, exercising extreme patience, and constraining movement, you can get a bear (and most species of wildlife) to move in the direction you choose. The animals will follow your planned escape route to the freedom of the open spaces outside of town and away from the people on-scene.
First, the bear must be made to leave the tree. To accomplish this, back off and allow the bear to feel that it will be safe out of the tree. If you can see the bear, it can see you. Move the people as far out of sight as possible. TV cameras, bright lights, crowds of spectators, and television “live shots” will keep the bear up in the tree.
Once the bear is out of the tree, allow it to move away from the tree on its own. Pressuring the bear too fast-that is, getting too close or making threatening gestures in its view-will cause it to go back up into the same tree or the next available one. Cautiously surround the animal from a nonthreatening distance on all sides except the direction in which you want it to travel. There should be no obstacles on this path.
As the bear moves away from the tree, move into its view, but don’t get too close. Move slowly, and watch the bear’s behavior. If it acts nervously and starts to make erratic motions, back off and give it more space and time to determine that the route of escape you planned is safe. If you pressure a small bear too much, it will be back up a tree, and the waiting game will resume. The “gentle” pressure of being visible but not close enough to frighten the bear will push it away from the people.
Once it gets dark, the bear will try to backtrack and take routes other than the preferred one. You can’t rush this type of incident. It won’t end until the bear finds its safe escape back into the wild.
- After the initial excitement of having a bear in the neighborhood has died down, scale back the incident to involve as few people as possible. Wildlife officers are normally armed and carry all the weaponry needed to deal with a problem bear. Therefore, it is not necessary to have a large, heavily armed contingent of police officers present. It took more than 24 hours to move the bear in Golden out of town because we managed to spook it several items. Once spooked, it climbed into another tree. Each time that happened, it took longer and longer for the bear to come out of the tree the next time.
- Patience is the key to success. It is usually not helpful to “speed up” the bear’s escape by shooting it in the butt with rubber buckshot. Although this is a fairly common practice, it seldom brings the desired result. Think of the situation as one in which you would like to give the bear positive reinforcement for moving in the direction you desire and negative reinforcement for doing anything else. The bear simply was hungry and wandered into town. It didn’t come to town to eat small children or attack police officers. It doesn’t deserve to get shot at unless it does something really wrong. If you give bears negative reinforcement when they do something you would like them to do, you may fail in your objective or delay reaching the ultimate goal. All too often, that is what happens.
Until we controlled our incident management tactics, we sometimes gave the wrong reinforcement to the bear. When we got the incident really under control, we were successful; the bear moved right where we wanted it to go.
- Advise the people in the area to stay inside and out of the bear’s view. Bring dogs inside so they don’t frighten the bear. We had to help schoolchildren get home safely because the Golden bear climbed a tree near an elementary school.
- When the call drags out into and through the night, have someone with great patience sit with the bear, ready to call for help when the bear leaves the tree and starts to move toward your planned route of escape. Stay out of the bear’s sight, but maintain your perimeter in the directions you do not want the bear to go. The bear will know you are there, but as long as you make no threatening moves toward it, it will get used to someone’s being around. When it feels safe, it will move in the direction you leave open for it.
- When you get the bear or other animal to follow your plan and move out of town, don’t give up too early. Follow it out of town for a sufficient distance to reduce the chance that it will return. For most bears, an encounter with people is a bad thing and one they would prefer to avoid.
When faced with a situation involving a bear or other wildlife creature that has entered community limits, the ultimate question remains, “Did the bear invade our space, or have we encroached on its territory?” I think we really know the answer and must learn to live in peaceful harmony with wildlife in our urban interface areas.
MARK WALLACE is chief of the McKinney (TX) Fire Department and former chief of the Golden (CO) Fire Department. He taught fire investigation throughout the United States and in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand for more than 20 years and taught fire investigation courses for the National Fire Academy. He is a past president of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association and the author of Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence (Fire Engineering, 1998) and has had numerous articles published in fire service-related magazines. He is the sole proprietor of Fire Eagle Ltd., a consulting firm.