University of Montana Assistant Professor Alex Metcalf with the Human Dimensions Lab recently began looking at why bears and other wildlife returned again and again to certain neighborhoods for food.

I live in the Miller Creek area and one of my neighbors insisted on leaving food out for the deer that have made a home in my yard.

I reminded him that it is illegal to feed wild animals that might turn our neighborhood into a game trail, and his reaction was ‘what, really?’

Metcalf has been studying the communication, or lack thereof, between neighbors on the subject.

“What we're looking at is black and grizzly bear interactions with people across Montana,” said Metcalf. “Just as you just described, there are lots of things near our homes and on our properties like bird feeders, trash, carcasses, fruit trees, or even people just intentionally feeding animals that can attract bears and habituate them to human sources of food and increase the likelihood of conflict.”

Metcalf said the neighbor to neighbor interaction is vital in sending a message to wildlife that they are not welcome in our yards.

“The outreach that we do tends to focus on a particular set of levers like cost and time, but doesn't necessarily get at a lot of the social factors,” he said. ‘What we found was actually the interaction you just described between you and your neighbor is one of the most important things in driving that securing behavior.”

Metcalf said his study emphasized the importance of neighbors working together to reduce human and wildlife conflict.

“This study showed across the whole state, how important our neighbors and our community are to landowners behaviors,” he said. “So if we see our neighbors securing attractants, or we understand however uncomfortable it might be that our neighbors expect us to secure our attractants, then we're more likely to do it. We also found that the more people talk to each other, and to wildlife professionals, the more likely they are to secure their attractants.”

One suggestion that Metcalf responded to enthusiastically was to seek out and encourage various neighborhood associations to spread the word about removing wildlife attractants.

“Not only is it important for that information to get to homeowners, but it's important that it comes from people who they respect and they have to interact with,” he said. “The fact that it would come from a neighborhood organization that's made up of their own neighbors, is both important for the information but it's also important because that's a really influential source of people.”

Social scientists in UM’s Human Dimensions Lab, housed in UM’s W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, classify human-wildlife interactions as a public-good, collective-action problem – a problem where solutions require contributions from many people and where people’s actions affect others. For the study, they applied this theory in Montana’s black bear and grizzly bear ranges to investigate how individual and collective factors work together to influence whether landowners secure bear attractants on their land.

(Photo by Peter Kolb)


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