Gatlinburg — A wildlife management technique using Tasers to modify nuisance bear behavior is being evaluated in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The management approach was among nearly a dozen presentations on "Reducing Conflicts: Tactics and Tools" at the 5th International Human-Bear Workshop in Gatlinburg.
The use of conducted electrical weapons, more commonly known as Tasers, has been a tactic used in Alaska since 2005.
"We're not just out tasering animals. We're using them for specific purposes like hazing, aversive conditioning, human avoidance, changing an animals immediate behavior," Alaska Department of Fish and Game officer Larry Lewis said.
Lewis presented his state agency's use of conducted electrical weapons for wildlife management to more than 260 wildlife leaders from across the United States, plus Canada, India, China, Austria and Italy.
"The conducted electrical weapon is another tool among all our tools that we can use, everything from our human voice and presence all the way up to lethal removal for dealing with an animal's undesirable behavior," Lewis said.
Alaskan wildlife officers have used a Taser on brown bears around 450 times in 13 years. Lewis says each time, the stun triggers the bear's flight response.
"We've done a lot of research," Lewis said. "We've done physiological research, university level research, looked at the safety of these devices."
Wildlife leaders in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have only been testing Tasers since last year. A biologist with the national park presented early findings at the workshop.
Park leaders say the technology has been used around a dozen times, and only in extreme cases with nuisance black bears.
Wildlife leaders say the need for modifying bear behavior is consistent across the country.
"It seems like we're all having very similar issues," Mike Orlando, assistant bear program coordinator with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said. "It's really one of the fundamental issues that we have in bear management. Trash is essentially a food source for bears."
Orlando says garbage, bird seed and dog food make for easy meals for bears. Once a bear is accustomed to easily finding food in one place, it often returns.
"In this day and age, one of our biggest issues dealing with wild animals is our garbage. That should be something we should be able to figure out," Orlando said.
Bears that become conditioned to trash often don't live long.
"Unfortunately, quite often once the animal has been food conditioned to that particular place and is human habituated, it's a lot of protein for not much energy expenditure, and then we end up killing a lot of those animals," Lewis said. "This (conducted electrical weapons) is another tool that we can use to try to break that string of habit before we go to lethal force removal."