By Isabel Grant, Alaska Field Office
Throughout history, human activity has caused widespread species decline and extinction. Climate change, natural resource exploitation, pollution and deforestation have reduced viable habitat, destabilized ecosystems and created the current biodiversity crisis. Humans have been so instrumental in shaping the current world that scientists have dubbed our present time the Anthropocene. The name is a classification of geologic time and reflects the belief that a millennium from now, the rock strata of the earth will show a clear difference between the time before humans and the time after.
Possessing a power and influence over the natural world, so profound that its existence will likely be baked into the geology of the earth, comes with responsibility. We may have catalyzed the decline of many species, but we are still capable of preventing or reversing these trends. Habitat loss is the leading cause of species decline because it has multiple causes and is often the root of human conflict with wildlife. While restoring lost habitat to vulnerable species is not always an option, we can improve how we share our space with wildlife.
In Alaska, black and brown bear populations are threatened by a combination of food scarcity and habitat loss leading to conflicts with humans. Human-caused mortality resulting from conflict is the most significant driver of bear decline. This past summer, I worked on human-bear coexistence in Alaska, specifically on the Kenai Peninsula and in Southeast Alaska. The brown bears of Kenai Peninsula are a subspecies of brown bears—grizzlies for those of us from the lower 48—threatened by clashes with humans. In Southeast Alaska, conflict with black and brown bears has resulted in record bear deaths in recent years. The new reality is that humans and bears will likely always have to live closer than either group would prefer. The best solution going forward is coexistence, a strategy that will require widespread cooperation.
Bears are part of life in Alaska, but living with North America's largest predator isn't easy. Raising chickens, beekeeping and gardening are just a few ways Alaskans provide for themselves but also attract bears to their communities. Even those not involved in agricultural pursuits can still inadvertently provide food sources to bears with unsecured grease traps, pet feed and household trash cans. Preventing bears from gaining access to these attractants is the key to reducing conflict. However, facilitating coexistence doesn’t mean people must lose important aspects of their way of life.
Around the world, communities often partner with organizations to develop and implement effective coexistence strategies. For example, Defenders of Wildlife offers an electric fence incentive program in Alaska. When installed correctly, electric fences can prevent bears from accessing whatever lies within the perimeter. Bears often become aggressive around food, especially when humans try to come between them and their meal. Electric fences can be the necessary barrier that prevents injury and defense of life and property kills.
Defenders’ electric fencing program is designed to proactively prevent conflicts, with priority given to landowners with past bear problems. We see a direct reduction in human-bear and other wildlife conflicts at sites with completed fences that are maintained.
Now in its 11th year at Defenders, the multi-region Electric Fence Incentive Program has a well-established track record of success. This year the program reached a milestone, helping complete its 500th electric fence project.
Another recent milestone includes an expansion of the Electric Fence Incentive Program into Southeast Alaska. Defenders’ partnerships with the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have made this expansion a reality. The USDA recently approved a Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy grant developed in cooperation with the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. Initial meetings with Defenders and representatives of Tlingit and Haida have begun to determine priority initiatives within Southeast Alaska once funding is released.
As we move into the future, our ability to cohabitate with wildlife will determine the survival of many of our planet’s species. The stakes are high and widespread coexistence will require humans worldwide to redefine how we live with wildlife. Won’t you join us?