Bears learn from humans, expert says
April 7, 2005
An outdoor barbecue with hamburgers, hot dogs and potato salad draws in more than just your average picnicker.
Inevitably a chipmunk or 10 will meander onto the site – seemingly unafraid – jumping from rock to rock to get at the picnic table where the food is.
“A black bear is a lot like the chipmunk,” says Lynn Rogers, who has studied the mammal in its natural habitat for more than three decades. “So much of their behavior is based on learning rather than instinct. They watch humans and how they react and then in doing so and over time they overcome fear. Just like the chipmunk that shows up on a picnic.”
On Friday Rogers, 66, of Ely, Minn., will share his stories of such bear encounters and what he’s learned from them at Caesars Tahoe beginning at 7:30 p.m. The cost is $5.
Known among colleagues as “Bear Man,” Rogers is a behavioral biologist and ecologist who has spent 38 years studying the animals. He has published more than 100 articles on black bears as well as appearing on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic Explorer’s “Bear Talk,” PBS’s “Nature” and most recently the Animal Planet documentary, “The Man Who Walks with Bears.”
Unlike myths that paint the black bear as a savage beast, Rogers says the black bear is a timid creature that easily adapts to whatever environment it’s in, and whose eyes tell them more about the behavior of creatures around them – including humans – than they are given credit for.
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“Black bears are intelligent animals. Their minds are ruled by fear and food and their behavior is based on learning rather than instinct,” Rogers said. “While it is instinct to gather food, bears have the flexibility of learning where the food is and are smart enough to overcome fear by watching what is going on around them.”
When bears learn that humans aren’t going to hurt them, they stop being afraid of them, he said. The irony is that once a bear drops its fear, humans will then become fearful of the animals.
“When you see a bear and it doesn’t seem bothered by you, it is assessing our behavior just as we are assessing their behavior,” he said. “Many bears are comfortable enough not to run from people . But I’ve found that even the most confident bear I can chase away by acting aggressive toward them. And of course we now have pepper spray that can put the fear of people into any bear.”
While it will be Rogers’ first time to Lake Tahoe, he is familiar with the black bears of the Sierra Nevada, having studied bears alongside Yosemite National Park rangers.
He is also familiar with encroachment issues between bears and humans in Tahoe and firmly believes bears and homeowners can live together without too much disruption. It all depends on one’s attitude, Rogers said.
“What one person considers a bear problem could be a joy to another person,” he said. “Still, if a person has what they consider a bear problem it doesn’t mean that the bear should be destroyed.”
He pointed to the efforts of the BEAR League, which finds nonlethal means of removing nuisance bears in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Rogers will discuss efforts that have worked in other bear country regions in North America at Friday’s lecture.