Aversive Conditioning: a campground example
Bear in campground© Parks Canada/YNP CD 2871 #35
While foraging for natural foods, a bear may pass by or through park campgrounds. Bear attracted to campgrounds due to careless food and garbage storage, or as the result of a handout quickly learn to associate facilities and people with a food reward. They become ‘problem’ bears. Such bears often end up being destroyed as a public safety risk and lost from the ecosystem.
In 1991, Parks Canada began using a technique called aversive conditioning to try to reform problem bears. Not all bears are suitable candidates and this costly, resource-intensive technique does not always work. Those bears that have become too great a safety risk are destroyed.
The following story is one example of how aversive conditioning has been used and some lessons learned in the early stages of applying it.
4 pm, June 28
A black bear ambles toward a campsite at Protection Mountain Campground. As the bear approaches, the dining campers retreat into their vehicle. The bear enters the campsite and proceeds to eat the remains of the meal left on the picnic table. He investigates the tent, tearing the fabric. The bear is described as being blonde/cinnamon in colour with a dark eye band. The tenting section of the campground is temporarily closed to protect campers, culvert traps are set, and a bear warning is posted in the remaining section.
Our number one goal is that bears never learn to associate people and campgrounds with food in the first place.
9:30 am, June 29
A black bear enters nearby Castle Mountain Campground and collapses an occupied tent. A warden on routine patrol observes the incident and chases the bear away by driving at it with the truck’s siren blaring. The occupant of the tent is uninjured, but the tent is damaged. The bear fits the description of the bear implicated at Protection Campground the previous day.
Later that day, a second incident involving a bear of the same description and a tent occurs in Castle Mountain Campground. No one is hurt. Castle Mountain Campground is temporarily closed. Bear culvert traps are set at both Protection Mountain and Castle Mountain Campgrounds in the campsites where the incidents occurred.
A 180 lb (82 kg) adult, male black bear with a distinctive blonde colouration and a dark eye band is caught in a culvert trap at Protection Mountain Campground. The bear is unmarked (has no ear tags or collar) and unknown to the Warden Service. A decision is made to try to modify the bear’s behaviour in an effort to restore his natural wary behaviour and keep him in the population. An aversive conditioning plan is drafted outlining behaviour modification techniques that will be used and a strategy to communicate to the bear that campgrounds are off-limits. A primary component of the program is doing a hard release on the bear at a site in which he got in trouble looking for food. During a hard release the area is closed to the public to ensure public safety.
The Aversive Conditioning Program
Rubber bullets© Parks Canada/Hal Morrison/YNP Slide Collection
- The trapped bear is tranquilized. This allows wardens to examine, weigh and tag him with an ear tag and attach a radio collar. The collar will allow wardens to closely monitor his location, while the ear tag allows quick visual identification.
- The bear is returned to the culvert trap to recover from the effects of the drug and left overnight at the campsite, in the area closed to the public.
- On July 2, a ‘typical’ campground scene is recreated at the campsite and two adjacent sites: two tents are erected; coolers and cookware are put on the picnic tables; and vehicles are parked at the sites. It is hoped the bear perceives the site as one to which it was formerly attracted.
- All personnel, a total of nine wardens, are briefed about the role each will play. Precautions for the bear’s safety and human safety are outlined. Some of the wardens wear jackets to conceal their uniforms as bears will learn to avoid wardens but not other people.
- The bear is hard released from the culvert trap under extremely negative conditions that it will identify with a campground. Wardens yell and holler at the bear to add the human voice to the mayhem created with noisemakers shot from guns. Rubber bullets and rubber buckshot also deliver a painful stimulus to teach the bear that a campground is a bad place to be. To succeed, this negative experience must override the bear’s positive association of a campground with a food reward.
- As soon as the bear crosses into forest cover outside the campground area, all conditioning actions cease. This reinforces the boundaries of the campground and teaches the bear that it’s safe to be outside the campground but not in it. Should the bear return, he will be met with the same force used to evict him.
Both campgrounds are reopened. The bear is monitored closely. His location is recorded 72 times by telemetry and several sightings are made of him prior to his denning for the winter. There are no telemetry locations or sightings closer than 1.5 km to any campground during this time. The bear appears to make an effort to avoid campgrounds when travelling by them. Though the bear is observed roadside several times, no food seeking or bold behaviour is noted. He will be monitored closely once he emerges from his den in the spring of 1998. Any undesirable behaviour will immediately result in an aversive conditioning ‘refresher’ course.
Though the bear avoids both Protection Mountain and Castle Mountain Campgrounds, unfortunately he visits campgrounds further away where aversive conditioning is not applied. He is trapped and relocated to a remote location in Kootenay National Park. He resumes his undesirable behaviour by venturing to the town of Radium Hot Spring where he gets into garbage. A trap is set for him. Unexpectedly he makes his way to the Banff Townsite and gets into garbage there. He is subsequently trapped and destroyed.
Since 1997, hard releases have been used numerous times with variable results. Aversive conditioning is a reactive measure used as a last ditch effort to keep a bear in the ecosystem. To be effective, aversive conditioning must be applied in a consistent and sustainable manner. Other factors that influence results are the bear’s personality; how long the bear in question has been ‘getting away’ with its undesirable behaviour, and consequently how tolerant they have become of people to gain an unnatural food reward.
Natural bear foods are seasonal and spread over large areas in the Rocky Mountain. To survive, bears have to remember where they were able to find food. Consequently, a bear that gets human food or garbage just once can become a ‘food-conditioned’ bear. We all need to ensure bears never get into human food or garbage; this is one of the most basic and simple things we can do to help protect bears. This also helps keep people safe.
Campers, here’s how you can help!
Bear in garbage© Parks Canada/CD 2871 #88
Be proactive. Take a few minutes to bear-proof your campsite:
- Store all bear attractants in your car trunk, hard-sided camping vehicle, or in a bear-proof locker.
Attractants include: food, pet food and bowls, grills and cook stoves, empty cans and bottles, insect spray, sunscreen, soap, dish cloths, cosmetics, and toothpaste. Coolers, tents and tent-trailers are not bear proof.
- Never cook or store food, cooking utensils, toilet articles or cosmetics in your tent or tent trailer.
- Never leave food (including pet food and bowls) or garbage unsecured at your campsite. This is illegal.
- Dispose of wastewater in greywater disposal facilities, not around your site.
- Promptly place all garbage in bear-proof garbage bins.
- Supervise your children at all times.
- If you see bear attractants left out at another site, politely share your knowledge with your fellow campers, or immediately inform park staff.
If you see a bear in the campground:
- Gather food and store securely if time permits.
- Gather your group and get inside a vehicle.
- Warn nearby campers and notify park staff.
- Remain in your vehicle until the bear has left the area.
- NEVER approach a bear, even in your vehicle.