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Why Have Nevada Bears Been Wandering Into Backyards?

<p>Photo Courtesy of John Axtell and Nevada Department of Wildlife</p>

Residents in Nevada are currently experiencing a notable increase in an annual summertime phenomenon: bears. More specifically, bears in their backyards.

Over the past few months, black bears from the mountains in Western Nevada have been wandering down to the foothills, becoming more and more of a presence in urban interfaces. While this is not an uncommon occurrence, July of 2014 saw the number of bears in urban areas double in comparison to last summer. Though the majority of the bears have not been causing trouble, Nevada Department of Wildlife's Chris Healy tells The Dodo that it's far from an ideal situation. When bears begin to associate food from garbage and fruit trees with humans, that's generally when they tend to lose any fear of humans and become aggressive.

Why would more of these bears suddenly be heading for urban environments? Healy says that it's all due to a lack of rainfall. "What we see during this drought is that we have less survival of certain species ... the habitat just doesn't have the quality of forage to provide for the animals." Therefore, bears in particular have been wandering into areas where there is water - areas populated by humans. During this past July, the NDOW handled 20 bears, in contrast to the seven bears handled in July of 2013 . Of the 20 bears, 14 were successfully relocated. Of the six remaining bears, four were struck by oncoming vehicles after wandering onto roadways, one was euthanized after attacking livestock, and one was euthanized after exhibiting aggression towards humans. Healy says that euthanization is always an absolute last resort for the wildlife department.

A bear in the process of being relocated. Photo courtesy of John Axtell and Nevada Department of Wildlife.

When a bear is relocated back into the wild after entering an urban area, officials must properly document the bear before releasing him. "We tranquilize it, attach ear tags, a microchip, a tattoo on its inner lip and take hair and tooth samples," says Healy. "This is all done as part of one of the longest running studies of black bears in North America."

Photos courtesy of John Axtell and Nevada Department of Wildlife.

Upon releasing the bear, wildlife officials use aversion conditioning to ensure that the bear does not return to the urban interface. Aversion conditioning involves firing rubber bullets into the air and using Karelian bear dogs to startle the bear and send it running back into the woods. This ensures that the bear associates unpleasantness with human towns, and is less likely to return.

Photos courtesy of John Axtell and Nevada Department of Wildlife.

Healy says that wildlife officials also educate the public about ways to prevent bears from wandering into their yard. Preventative protocol includes harvesting all fruit from backyard trees and properly securing garbage.

Healy say that August was a less intense bear month, with some unusual rainfall in early August providing greenery for the state's wildlife. Because of this, he has hope that in the coming months the conditions will improve and the winter will provide enough melted snow to create greenery again. However, this prediction remains to be seen. "We think things have improved in the short-term ... but it could still be bad news for big game populations."