‘They will continue to increase’…Why have bears started to come down to human settlements? What is the expert’s opinion? | FRIDAY DIGITAL

‘They will continue to increase’…Why have bears started to come down to human settlements? What is the expert’s opinion?

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It would be more accurate to say that they will continue to increase and are in the process of doing so.”

Brown bears are frequently seen in Hokkaido. At Lake Shumarinai in the town of Horokanai in northern Hokkaido, a fisherman was attacked and even killed. There has also been a string of bear sightings in residential areas in urban areas such as Sapporo and Muroran. The number of reports coming in to the Hokkaido police is said to be at a record pace.

Why have so many bears been seen in human settlements this year? We asked Professor Yoshikazu Sato of Dairy Farming University, who is a member of the Hokkaido Brown Bear Protection Management Study Group and is at the forefront of brown bear countermeasures.

He said, “The period from May to July is the brown bear’s breeding season, when the bear’s range of activities expands. Males move around in the mountains in search of females, and females with cubs are more likely to appear in human settlements to escape from males. It is true that during this time of year, there are many appearances of parent and cub bears around urban areas.

However, it would be more accurate to say that the number is increasing every year and will continue to increase, and that we are in the process of seeing more of them, rather than that there are more this year in particular.”

Signs warning of bears are not uncommon in Hokkaido.

So when did the number of bears begin to increase?

Around the year 2000, bears began to be seen near the downtown area of Sapporo. At first it was bears coming from deep in the mountains, but eventually the number of bears living in the urban area began to increase. Moiwa, which can be seen from the center of Sapporo, has a rich forest that has been protected by a protected primeval forest, making it a very comfortable place for bears to live.

In terms of the whole Hokkaido area, I have the impression that the number of bears appearing in urban areas is increasing in areas where there have not been many bear problems in the past. Or, I feel that in areas where there has been no bear damage and no need for extermination, bears are appearing not only in farmland but also in urban areas.

The year 1990 was a turning point, says Sato. The “spring bear extermination system” that began in 1966 in Hokkaido was abolished in 1990.

Until ’89, hunters actively shot bears in March and April, following their tracks on the mountain snow surfaces. That led to a decline in Hokkaido’s bear population, especially on the Sea of Japan side, where there is a lot of snowfall.

Since the abolition of the spring bear extermination system, we have changed our approach to exterminating bears caught in traps set mainly around farmland, as the Birds and Wild Animals Protection and Management Law prohibits shooting bears on roads or after sunset. Now, 30 years after its abolition, the bear population has clearly increased.”

According to calculations by the Hokkaido Prefectural Government, the estimated number of bears in the area was 5,200 in FY 1990, but by FY 2008, the number had almost doubled to 11,700.

Today’s bears are not “afraid to encounter humans.

‘The maximum lifespan for a brown bear is currently estimated to be 34 years old. There must not be a single bear left today that has experienced being chased directly by hunters in the mountains when there were spring bear exterminations.

Bears today are not afraid to encounter humans. Their recent behavior gives me that feeling.”

Brown bears were originally considered to be highly wary of humans and tended to avoid people. However, the new generation of bears is apparently different.

There are many bears that don’t run away. For example, in Shiretoko National Park, where brown bears can be observed from sightseeing boats, the bears do not care if people are watching them. Even if a car passes through the park, the bears on the side of the road do not try to escape. The same is true of bears that have recently appeared in urban areas outside of Shiretoko, and many of them do not hide when they encounter people.

As for the human side, TV stations are rolling cameras to film bears that appear in residential areas of Sapporo, and residents are simply taking videos with their smartphones. They do not try to scare the bears. They don’t experience fear when they encounter people, so the bears come out into the city and act at their leisure.”

During the breeding season, parent and cub bears come to the city to escape from the males.

In addition, Professor Sato points out that “agriculture is also causing bears to be attracted to human settlements.

Until now, corn for livestock feed was often imported, but now the area planted with corn for animal feed is expanding in order to improve feed self-sufficiency. In addition, the number of businesses specializing in growing only feed is also increasing.

Fodder corn only bears fruit in August and September, when there is a shortage of food for bears in the forests. Moreover, there are no people in the feed corn fields from planting until harvest. For the bears, it is a safe restaurant where they are welcomed.

So the farmers set up box traps to catch the bears. The number of bears caught in traps and exterminated will certainly increase. However, the damage to the cornfields will not be eliminated because the all-you-can-eat feeding ground is still right in front of the bears.

There are even fields where more than half of the corn crop is eaten by bears. In order to keep bears away from the fields and reduce the number of bears entering human settlements, we need to take measures such as planting in fields away from the mountains and installing electric fences and repellent devices at the border with the mountains.

Urban planning for “biodiversity conservation” and “wildlife protection” is a contributing factor.

We humans tend to think that the reason bears have come to haunt human settlements is due to changes in the bears. However, the trigger may lie in changes in the environment and responses on the part of humans.

The change on the part of the humans is probably the main reason. If we had continued to go into the mountains to exterminate bears, they might not have settled so close to people’s living areas.

Conservation of biodiversity and coexistence with wildlife are national goals, and large cities in particular have developed their towns and cities accordingly. Because of efforts to educate the public, citizens have a high awareness of nature conservation. However, we have noticed that bears have become too familiar and are causing problems.

The Japanese government formulated its first National Biodiversity Strategy in 1995, and after five revisions, the Cabinet approved the National Biodiversity Strategy 2023-2030 on March 31 of this year. The strategy aims to achieve the international target of “protecting at least 30% of both terrestrial and aquatic areas.

If we are to protect biodiversity by protecting 30% of both land and sea, we will have to target not only national parks and bird and animal sanctuaries, but also nature close to home for protection. Moreover, it will not work unless these targets are connected by a green network.

However, if a green network is developed that connects forests and urban areas, it will attract more and more wild animals to the city. We can assume that the bears that are now appearing in urban areas are probably bears that have invaded following that network.

After all, it is the national biodiversity strategy of the country that is widening the entrance to the bear problem, and it is the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism that are promoting the ecological network concept that connects forests, rivers, and cities through green spaces and other corridors to achieve that goal.

In the same way that new budgets are taken for civil engineering work to build towns that are resilient to natural disasters, the relevant ministries and agencies should be promoting bear-resilient town development in parallel.

In the past 30 years, the brown bear population in Hokkaido has doubled.

In March of this year, Sapporo City formulated the “Sapporo Brown Bear Basic Plan 2023. The city of Sapporo formulated the “Sapporo Brown Bear Basic Plan 2023” in March of this year. ~Under the vision, the city will strengthen measures to keep brown bears away from human settlements, such as mowing grass and installing electric fences.

The Ministry of the Environment is also trying to promote this policy nationwide, and Sapporo City has decided to manage zoning by separating the brown bear’s habitat from people’s living areas, with the aim of separating people and brown bears. The city of Sapporo has decided to create an “uncomfortable environment” for the bears by zoning the area between the mountains and human living areas as an urban-suburban forest zone. I think it is a big step forward that the plan clearly states the measures to be taken to realize the segregation of habitat.

What about North America, where bears live? Are there any areas where they have succeeded in segregating the bears?

In Canada and the U.S., each provincial government has a local agency staffed by wildlife rangers, and when a problem with wild animals occurs, the rangers immediately respond. They remove bears and conduct educational activities, such as calling for electric fences to be erected in dangerous areas.

Such a system is completely absent in Hokkaido, he says.

In the case of Hokkaido, there are 14 promotion bureaus in the prefecture, so I think it would be a good idea if each bureau assigned several full-time staff members who specialize in wild animals and birds to work with municipalities and local residents in the field during normal times. From there, it would be desirable for the government to train and hire hunters, leading to the creation of a system that can exterminate bears in times of emergency. This would be the ideal solution.”

Yoshikazu Sato, professor at Dairy Farming University, was born in Tokyo in 1971. He was a member of the “Hokkaido University Brown Bear Research Group” during his time at the Faculty of Agriculture, Hokkaido University. Currently serves as a member of the Hokkaido Brown Bear Conservation Management Review Committee and as a member of the Shiretoko World Natural Heritage Regional Scientific Committee and chair of the Brown Bear Working Group. He is the author of “Urban Bear: Confronting the Brown Bear in My Neighborhood” (University of Tokyo Press).

  • Interview and text by Sayuri Saito

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