It was with just a little anxiety that I sat down within easy striking distance of the jaws and claws of a 320 pound black bear in a parking lot in Reno, Nevada. The bear was sleeping off the sedative that had been used to get him out of a tree behind a burger stand in downtown Reno.
Carl Lackey, the Nevada Department of Wildlife's chief bear biologist, had shot the bear with the sedative. Lackey is having his busiest year ever for problem bears. He has been called out to capture more than seventy bears this year that have wandered into places they shouldn't be as they search for food. A western drought has made nuts and berries scarce.
The big bear we were sitting beside had probably come out of the mountains to the west. Lackey figured it had looked down from the dry forest and spotted Reno, looking like an oasis…and decided to gamble on finding a good meal there. The bear seemed to hit the jackpot in the garbage by the burger stand.
Lackey's goal now is to make this bear think that was a very bad idea, indeed. The next day, when the bear was well awake and Lackey could check that it was healthy, he drove it in a cage back up to the mountains. When the cage door opened and the bear started to run Lackey let loose his two fearless Karelian bear dogs. He shouted and fired rubber bullets at the fleeing bear. He hopes the bear will now think twice before the next time he heads into the city.
But Lackey's research over ten years now has revealed quite a number of bears that have become urban bears. He identifies them with radio collars and GPS equipment. They live on the fringes of the city and usually venture into town in the dark to raid garbage cans and gardens. These bears put on plenty of weight and have a higher birth rate than bears that survive solely in the wild. But their cubs also have a much higher death rate. There are dangers in the city. Many bear cubs get hit by cars.
In a way these urban bears seem to be turning the tables on us. For years human/bear conflicts have been caused largely by people moving into bear territory. Now some bears have decided to move into human territory.