Bears and People: A Novel Program For Peaceful Coexistence
An interview about a visual case story and call for community action.
Posted Jul 25, 2018
Interactions and conflicts between human and nonhuman animals (animals) are a common occurrence across the globe. Every now and again a novel approach for reducing conflicts and working toward peaceful coexistence comes my way, and the interview that follows shows that with some hard work and mutual respect and understanding, conflicts can be greatly reduced. And, having worked on some of the conflicts between black bears, cougars, and other animals in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, I'm pleased to present an interview with Melanie Hill about her wonderful program called "The Bears & People Project." A table of contents for this ambitious and novel project can be seen here.
Melanie agreed to answer some questions about what she's been up to, and our interview went as follows.
Please tell me about your project and what inspired you to do it. What does it entail?
I was initially inspired to get involved with large carnivore coexistence work upon learning about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. I was fascinated by the wolf species in general, but also the benefits that these remarkable animals can bring to an ecosystem. What really piqued my interest was why some individuals fostered such a strong disdain for carnivores instead of seeing them as these incredible animals. I always wondered, what was it that drove that feeling?
As I started my Master of Arts in Media & Public Engagement program at the University of Colorado Boulder, I knew I wanted to try to understand both sides of the equation and make an impact on a local scale, so I began digging into human-carnivore relationships here in the Boulder area. There was so much going on locally that I wasn’t aware of, specifically with black bears. Each fall, these omnivores would begin bulking up for winter hibernation, which meant they often made their way into Boulder’s urban areas in search of food or shelter. It’s not uncommon for a bear to come into town, but what we want to prevent is them staying in town and becoming habituated to city life. If that were to happen, they might become aggressive and hurt people, get hit by a car, or have to be destroyed. And nobody wants that to happen. Bears are normally quite skittish and afraid of people, so the goal is to keep them from becoming too comfortable so they can continue being regular wild bears.
The common culprits that lure the bears into town tend to be things like unsecured trash, unharvested fruit, bird feeders, etc. So it seemed like an easy fix: secure the trash, harvest the fruit, bring bird feeders in for the season, and there will be no conflicts, right? Yes... but keeping up on education and awareness in a rapidly growing town that has newcomers who aren’t familiar with animals like black bears moving into the area is the challenge. There was a major disconnect here.
I feel very fortunate to live in a community that places such high value in wildlife and wants more than anything to keep the animals safe, but the disconnect between many residents’ feelings and actions was rather puzzling. People who generally wanted to safeguard the bears were unknowingly attracting the animals to their property and setting them up for disaster. I wanted to get to the bottom of this and find ways to encourage people to be more proactive so they could see that they themselves are the solution to these conflicts. The community would be able to protect black bears and keep their neighbors safe by taking a few simple steps; they just needed to know what they should do, and the impact their actions would have.
Through my Master’s program, I set out to understand community perspectives and behaviors, and began collaborating with local stakeholders like Colorado Parks & Wildlife, the City of Boulder, and Boulder Bear Coalition. I gathered as much information as I could and began working on the ground with each stakeholder group- these ranged from a volunteer bearsitter program (which meant we were literally bear babysitters), program development and outreach, facilitating group meetings with relevant stakeholders, community fruit harvests, developing a native forage buffer zone, and communicating with residents via neighborhood platforms or in person. Additionally, I documented these efforts with photos and videos. My background is in photography and communication, and I firmly believe that visual storytelling is one of the most effective ways to reach people. So what I ended up with was a visual case story that is housed at www.bearsandpeople.com. It tells the narrative of Boulder’s efforts to coexist with urban black bears, and has a heavy emphasis on community action.
What is unique about your approach for fostering peaceful coexistence between nonhumans and humans?
When I began working on this project, I knew I wanted to support the efforts of our stakeholder groups, but I didn’t want this to become just another website, or just another project. So I decided to put a personal spin on it by framing the project as a visual case story, while also serving as one central repository of information that pointed people to the existing work of each group. There isn’t really one cohesive space where a person can learn about Boulder’s story of black bear coexistence. The City of Boulder, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, and Boulder Bear Coalition have all done things both independent of one another, and in partnership, and each have their own resources available, but the things I learned throughout my endeavors weren’t available anywhere. And those were the things that really stood out to me- the personal stories of each stakeholder, their passions and ways of doing things, the challenges they incurred. It wasn’t talked about anywhere and I felt sharing those stories was the best way to connect the Boulder community to the topic of bears.
In addition to having numerous photos and videos to tell the story, I partnered with two artists, Erin Hauer and Carlyn Hill, to help bring a bit more character to my project. Erin created some beautiful watercolor illustrations that brought a sense of natural history and wonder to the story. Carlyn worked with me to design these amazing comics that show people the dos and don’ts of black bear coexistence. Nowadays there is so much information out there, so it’s hard to break through the noise and successfully engage people in your own work. Keeping that in mind, I designed my website in a way that would please all types of readers: there’s a full narrative available for those who really want to dig in, and for people who mainly skim through content, each longform chapter is filled with videos, photos, artwork, and large colorful text. That way, each person walks away with at least one piece of information.
So this project is quite interdisciplinary and includes equal parts of visual storytelling, collaboration, and a strong call to action. And although the story is complete (for now), the Bears & People Project is an ongoing process that can also be applied to other species and other regions.
Who is your intended audience? Can this project be used by other communities?
My main goal is to reach the Boulder community, both in the city and throughout the broader county. I want people to see that they have the power to reduce conflicts with black bears and other urban wildlife, but they need to be proactive about it. It just requires a few simple steps, but peaceful coexistence is only possible if everyone adopts these actions. Our local government and wildlife agencies can produce all the policies and regulations they want, but I’ve learned that those policies are only productive if the community supports them and is willing to comply.
This project focuses on black bears in Boulder, Colorado, but the theme of personal responsibility and all the outreach materials can absolutely be applied to other regions, communities, and species. Asking the question, “Why is this black bear coming into urban areas?” can also be “Why is this coyote or mountain lion coming into urban areas?” Many other communities struggle with the same issues that Boulder is faced with, and I wanted this project to be somewhat of a replicable model for other areas. We’re extremely fortunate that our community and local government are willing and able to step up and protect wildlife, but other city centers may not have the same capabilities. I want this project to also serve as a guide to coexistence, where other regions can see how Boulder dealt with these conflicts and not have to reinvent the wheel.
Do you have hope that nonhuman-human interactions will improve over time, and what is the role of educating the public?
Absolutely, but it won’t be easy. We’re living in this time of media overload and diminishing attention spans, so communication is a key piece of this puzzle. We must be creative and strategic about the messages we put out to the public, and make an effort to understand what will be the most effective way to reach people. It really requires a multifaceted approach. The digital and print side of things is extremely important, but we also can’t forget the power of face-to-face connections. For some, having a friendly face to talk to you and explain a situation is more powerful than reading something online or in a flier. Part of what I try to do is encourage people to connect the dots. Once they begin to understand the big picture, the next step is to empower them to go out and talk to their own neighbors, friends, and family. Hearing from a person you trust helps put a little positive peer pressure out there and makes people more inclined to change the way they do things.
What are some of your current and future projects?
Right now in Boulder, we’re ramping up for what could be a busy bear season in town. Black bears are beginning to bulk up for winter hibernation and will be making their way through the city on their quest to eat roughly 20,000 calories per day. So I’m focused on supporting the efforts of our stakeholders and am mainly doing things like communicating with residents on NextDoor; creating informational fliers to hand out when bears are active in a certain area; leading fruit harvests with Community Fruit Rescue; volunteering as a bearsitter; managing volunteers for our ongoing native forage buffer zone project, and facilitating regular meetings with the stakeholder groups so everyone can find ways to support one another.
I plan to continue building upon the Bears & People Project with updates as they happen and doing more outreach throughout Boulder and with other communities that live alongside black bears. I’d love to find a way to build a broader coalition of bear-centric groups to help everyone build capacity and learn from one another. Finding the time and resources to carry all this out is the hard part!
Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers?
Making changes on an individual level is one of the most important things we can do to be better neighbors to our wildlife. Take the time to understand the ecosystem you are living in and learn about your neighbors- both human and nonhuman. Consider how your actions might be influencing wildlife in both a positive and negative way, and see how you can make your property wildlife friendly.
It’s also great to get to know the agencies and organizations that are responsible for wildlife management. Here in Boulder we have some incredible wildlife officers that are a wealth of knowledge and want to work with the community to keep animals like black bears wild and out of harm’s way. They don’t want to ever have to physically manage a bear, but if the community isn’t proactive, they’re the ones that unfortunately have to come in to clean up the mess. So take advantage of the resources they can provide and share everything with your neighbors. Having that personal connection with your fellow community members is one of the best ways to inspire others to also take action. It truly takes a village to prevent conflicts with wildlife, but working together makes a huge difference.
Learn more about what it’s like to live with black bears and see how you can prevent conflicts by visiting bearsandpeople.com.
Thank you, Melanie, for such an informative, important, and inspirational interview. Another wonderful program that has enjoyed a great deal of success is that of Project Coyote whose mission is "to promote compassionate conservation and coexistence between people and wildlife through education, science and advocacy...advocating coexistence instead of killing." Predator Defense has similar goals. Killing the animals who wander into our neighborhoods because they have no where else to go or because we invite them either intentionally or unintentionally needs to be taken off the table.1
Working for peaceful coexistence is incredibly important because the nonhumans with whom we share our magnificent planet and an increasingly human-dominated world need all the help they can get. And, when "push comes to shove," it's inevitable that the nonhumans who get the worst deal, usually being killed or occasionally being moved to another location, where, if they cause a "problem," they can be killed. I wish you all the very best of luck and hope that many other communities around the world will adopt your forward-looking program as a model.
1After these animals are killed it's often said they were "euthanized." This is not so in the vast majority of instances. Euthanasia refers to mercy killing, for example, "putting to sleep" an individual who is suffering from an incurable illness or who is suffering from interminable pain. The animals who wind up being killed "humanely" (or not) because they've trespassed into places where humans live and would prefer not to encounter them are simply being killed, or as some say, slaughtered. The word "euthanasia" sanitizes this fact, but is is totally misleading and misrepresents what actually is done to healthy animals.