On November 12, 2009, in the remote northern highlands of Ecuador not far south of Colombia, a pair of grazing bulls lost their footing on a steep, muddy slope. They slipped down the sheer face of a deep Andean ravine and landed dead in the small stream gully below.
Some days later, a large spectacled bear picked up the smell of ripe flesh. The animal, a male, followed the scent trail down from its high cloud forest habitat and spent several days feasting on the carcasses—treasure troves of protein and fat for an animal that lives mostly on vegetables, fruits and tubers. The event, seemingly just another day in the high Andes, where bears and cattle have crossed paths for centuries, would spiral into one of the most problematic sagas now affecting relations between local indigenous communities and the endangered spectacled bear.
“That was the first time he ate beef,” says Andres Laguna, a Quito-based biologist with the Andean Bear Foundation who has been studying and resolving matters of bear-human conflict for several years. “Then, a few weeks later, he killed his first cow.”
The male bear, Laguna says, quickly gained an irresistible taste for flesh and embarked on what has become an unstoppable and possibly unprecedented rampage of killings. The animal, which Laguna has nicknamed “Yachak”—the indigenous Quechua word for “wise man”—has now killed about 250 head of livestock in the northern provinces of Carchi and Imambura since his first taste of domesticated flesh. Months at a time do go by when the bear vanishes, but other times Yachak kills wantonly. In one week in 2012, for instance, he killed seven head of cattle.
Many local ranchers would be perfectly glad to see Yachak dead, and unknown individuals have broken federal law in attempts to kill him. But Yachak, believed to be more than 15 years old, remains alive while, instead, about a dozen innocent bears have lost their lives to the bullets. Laguna says several bears have been shot from treetops while peacefully eating bromeliads, colorful epiphytic plants like jesters’ hats with starchy bulb-like hearts. Amid such lawless unrest, it’s clear that Yachak has compromised relations between conservationists and the people who live on the fringe of Ecuador’s dwindling bear habitat—and the conflict brings forth the question that wildlife managers in many places have to ask at times: Would the species be better off without this individual?
In Montana, grizzly bears—a threatened species—are regularly culled from the population when they become habitual sheep or cattle killers. Mike Madel, a Montana bear conflict management biologist in the region known as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, calls killing bears “the worst part of my job.”
But, he says, it’s essential.
“It’s so much better in the long run for social acceptance of the bears to remove the problem bear from the population,” Madel explains. “You just have to weigh the negative social influence that one or two bears that are killing cattle can have on an area. Just one bear, if you let it keep killing livestock, can cause dissention and cause people to start talking negatively. It can really drag down an entire recovery program.”
In the late 1980s, when the grizzly population of northwestern Montana was crawling back from its historical low of about 350 in the 1970s, two grizzlies—a male and female living side by side for the short mating season—began killing cattle together. When the pair separated, they still wanted beef.
“All of a sudden, we had two bears killing livestock,” remembers Madel, a 30-year veteran in his field. The female was relocated and successfully turned back onto a natural diet. The male, however, after a relocation effort, traversed the 150 miles back to the cattle country where he’d been trapped. Nicknamed the “Falls Creek Male,” the bear resumed killing—and did so for years. By 2001, this individual grizzly had killed more than 60 cows, Madel says, and incurred costs on ranchers topping $70,000. Other sources inflated that figure to as high as $200,000.