After being declared nearly extinct in Nevada in 1979, black bears have staged a comeback in the state, with a population today numbering in the hundreds.
Fanning out east and south from Lake Tahoe, bears are repopulating the Great Basin ranges that hunting, logging, and encroaching civilization drove them from a century ago.
A new study by the University of Nevada, Reno and the Wildlife Conservation Society credits the bears’ return to long-term conservation efforts. Also, modern grazing and forestry practices have allowed for reforestation of historic bear habitats.
“What we saw was a change in forestry practices and grazing practices that lead to habitat regeneration,” said Jon Beckmann with the Wildlife Conservation Society told KNPR's State of Nevada.
However, returning the habitat back to its natural state was only part of the problem for the scientists like Beckmann, who started working on improving the bear population in the 90s.
“At first, people didn’t know if it was a population increase or if it was a shift in the distribution of bears," he said.
After studying the bears for a while, they noticed there were more bears and they were interacting with humans more often. They also found that interaction was leading to high mortality rates in the urban areas of the bears' habitat.
One of the easiest ways to address that problem was an aggressive educational campaign about bear-proofing garbage cans and dumpsters around the Lake Tahoe and Carson City areas.
Scientists found bears would come to eat the garbage, which in the eyes of a bear is an excellent, high-calorie, easy-to-find, and always replenished resource, and then get hit by a car or become aggressive with humans to the point that they had to be removed.
When more and more people put in bear-proof garbage cans and dumpster that mortality rate dropped.
“As a result, we changed a once negative growth rate in these urban areas into a positive growth rate,” Beckmann said.
Scientists estimate there are between 500 and 600 bears in Nevada, enough to create a sustainable, genetically diverse population.
However, Marjorie Matocq, an environmental studies scientists at University of Nevada, Reno, said maintaining connections between the different populations of bears in the state is key to their survival.
“These natural patterns of connectivity across the landscape are what sustain these populations demographically but also genetically,” she said.
She said the task ahead is not just establishing a population of bears but making sure their genetic makeup is diverse enough to withstand environmental pressures.
The results of the study are expected to provide insight into improving conservation efforts for other animals in other locations.
“The recovery of large carnivores is relatively rare globally yet this is the goal of conservation,” Beckmann said.
However, as the bear population grows and the human population in western Nevada grows, the interaction between the two will continue.
Beckmann said it is important that people understand their actions have a large impact on a bear's behavior. Plus, he hopes to use the lessons learned while bringing back the bear population.
“If we can have people who live in bear habitat to work with wildlife managers and conservationists to reduce that accessibility to garbage then we’ve made significant progress,” he said.
Jon Beckmann, Wildlife Conservation Society; Marjorie Matocq, UNR environmental studies
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