Compost and Bears: Black Gold and Gold Diggers

Environmentally friendly composting considers people, bears, and our enviornment.
When people ask me about composting in bear country, I ask them to think about options that work best for them and their community that maximize benefits and minimize costs for people, bears, and the environment.

For people and bears, and the environment that sustains us, it pays to consider and weigh options for composting.

One of the greatest rewards of spending decades immersed in my career as a wildlife ecologist has been perspective. With each shift in the way I view the world, I feel a sense of surprise (and sometimes resistance), wonder, and then accomplishment. One of those shifts relates the topic of compost and bears.

When I was a kid living on Vancouver Island composting and gardening were facts of life, pretty simple actually. I vaguely recall a rat in the compost but black bears (the only bear species that lives on The Island), certainly not.

All that changed when I move to downtown Stuie (population somewhere around 11 at the time) to work on the Tweedsmuir-Atnarko Grizzly Bear Study (1991-1993). Our field camp, office, and home consisted of a small cabin perched on a bench above a river floodplain netted with wildlife trails. A few black bears had the run of the area in spring and early summer until the salmon arrived. And when they did, imperceptibly black bears vanished and suddenly grizzly bears dominated, lots of them. We definitely didn’t have time for gardening and the thought of composting—well, that would just be asking for trouble. So we didn’t.

Later when I got more involved in community-based bear awareness initiatives, I’d recommend that people living among bears limit their composting to all but leaves and grass clippings, for the sake of the bears. Knowing the issues people were having with bears getting into compost and experiencing the demise of bears that had learned to seek food from people underscored my resolve.

Well, a lot has changed since then. Science, technology and communications have taken great leaps forward; our population has rocketed past 7 Billion; conversations in my house are more about global warming, loss of biodiversity and unsustainable use of natural resources and less about wildlife ecology and behaviour (I miss those days). I also know that organics in landfills contribute to leachate and methane gases problems. Now, it’s clear to me that the issue at hand is not just about bears in compost.

Composting is a big plus for the environment but what about bears?

Composting diverts organics from landfills, reducing undesirable environmental effects that are costly to manage. Instead, the product of composting—a rich organic material described by some as black gold—can be used to boost plant productivity and reduce the amount of water needed for gardens. But for bears, the cost of gold digging (for food rewards) can be great. Bears that learn to seek food from people often damage property and increase public safety concerns. The most common outcome of repeated bear incidents is a dead bear.

The good news: most problems involving bears are preventable.

Maintaining the balance of green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich
Manage compost to maximize decomposition rates using guidelines for the type of composter you are using. Here I maintain an appropriate balance of green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) materials by layering them; water by adding to the compost, as needed; and air by turning the compost.

Manage compost to minimize the probability that bears will get into it. Some of the known or potential factors influencing the attractiveness of compost for bears include

  • the method of composting
  • where the composter is located
  • the quantity and quality of materials that go into it
  • the quality of natural bear habitats nearby
  • seasonal and annual variation in the availability of natural foods
  • local history of problems (timing, frequency, nature, severity) involving bears
  • availability of other attractants to bears
  • the age, sex, reproductive status, character, and situation of individual bears that encounter it.

Depending on where you live and In some situations and contexts, using good practices to minimize the attractiveness of compost may be sufficient. In other situations and contexts, best practices for composting in bear country will be needed; that is, compost indoors, don’t put attractive items in outdoor composts, or use a bear-resistant method. If specific regulations or guidelines are not available in your area, the following provides some information that can be used to support decisions for compost management. I developed these guidelines for use in the Bulkley Valley.

Good practices to minimize the attractiveness of compost

If you live in the middle of town, away from wildlife travel corridors, and you’re not composting large quantities of high quality foods for bears, then good practices to minimize the attractiveness of your compost may be sufficient.

1. Select a composting method that suits your needs and lifestyle. There are many ways to compost. Some will be better than others.
2. For composting outdoors,
  • When selecting a location for your composter, avoid areas with natural bear foods and trails, travel routes, and alleyways that wildlife use to move through an area. The area around it should be open with good visibility. This may help to deter some bears and help you to detect other bears.
  • Composting turns organic materials into black gold.
    Composting turns organic materials into black gold, a much needed addition for the clayey soils in my area.

    Use good composting practices that promote rapid decomposition and minimize the attractiveness:

  • Follow guidelines to maximize the effectiveness of the type of composter you are using.
  • Generally, composting leaves and grass clippings should not attractant bears. However, bears may be attracted if earthworms (a great source of protein) become particularly abundant.
  • Never add meat, fish, bones, oils, grease, dairy, or other animal products. Many nuts, seeds, and grains, and products made from them, also attract bears (and other animals) so as a general precaution include these should probably be included on your “do not compost” list. Rinse and crush eggshells.
  • Most fruits and some vegetables also attract bears, notably quantity and quality matter to bears: compost these with care. Cut larger pieces into smaller pieces. Don’t add large volumes all at once. Cover newly added scraps with soil, grass clippings, or leaves to reduce odours. However, this should not be your primary line of defense. Bears have an incredible sense of smell. Consider dividing larger volumes of fruits and vegetables into smaller portions and then freezing them. This way you can add them gradually (thaw first), reducing the attractiveness and increasing the rate of decomposition. I wish I knew who came up with this idea so I could thank and credit them. I think it’s a good one.
Strawberries love compost.
Strawberries love compost!
3. Be prepared to adapt composting practices, if or as needed to prevent compost-related bear issues.

Some best practices for composting in bear country

If you live near natural bear habitats and wildlife travel corridors or you are composting large volumes of high quality foods for bears, then you’ll probably need to apply best practices for composting in bear country. Some options to consider include

  • Use an indoor composting method. See, for example, Metro Vancouver’s Here’s the Dirt: Worm Composting brochure
  • Limit items added to outdoor composts to those that don’t attract bears (e.g., leaves, grass clippings).
  • Build a bear-resistant composter. See, for example, this innovative and skillful solution for bear-resistant composting.
  • Install an electric fence to deter bears; ensure that it is appropriately designed, installed, and maintained for the purpose. See Living with Wildlife Foundation’s resource guides.
  • Work with others in your community along with appropriate experts and regulators to build a bear-resistant composter designed for community use. Then people can use their own composts for non-attractive or less attractive additions and the community compost for attractive additions.

Crab apples are beautiful but some are a pain to pick (like mine). Sometime between late summer and early fall, I install a portable electric fences around our apple tree and compost and then I take them down when the bears have gone to bed.

 

Start a conversation to find practical and acceptable solutions for composting in the community or region that you live in.

Talk to conservation or wildlife officers (Conservation Officers in BC), environmental regulators, wildlife biologists, and others to gather knowledge and expertise specific to protecting the environment, living safely in bear country, and effectively producing compost. Talk to people in your community to gather local knowledge based on their experiences. As available, bear incident or problem wildlife reports could be used to assess needs for addressing compost-related bear issues. However, I view these statistics with caution because I suspect that incidents involving bears getting into composts may be under reported, at least in some areas.

 

Consider establishing a community working group to tackle the bigger picture of managing compost (and other attractants) so that bears can not gain access to them.

By working together, people in communities can find practical ways to maximize benefits and minimize costs of composting for people, bears, and our environment. Community or regionally identified solutions can be supported through incentives, education, guidelines, and bylaws. Monitoring and adaptive management can be used to ensure effectiveness of composting programs for achieving desired goals and objectives for people, bears and the environment.

 

NOTICE: In this post, I haven’t covered curbside pick-up of compost for composting at a community or regional facility. If you know of some bear-related successes or challenges associated with this approach to managing compost, I’d love to hear about them.

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