DOW willing to feed deer, but not bears
ASPEN ” State wildlife officials are defending their decision to feed deer to prevent mass starvation this winter after refusing to intervene last summer for bears facing a similar plight around Aspen.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife began feeding hundreds of mule deer at 60 sites in the Gunnison Basin on Jan. 13 and will continue as long as conditions warrant. The agency also is feeding 380 pronghorns in the Gunnison area.
Wildlife officials said the emergency action was needed to “avoid a catastrophic die off.” The DOW is monitoring the effects of deep snow and cold temperatures in other parts of the state, including Aspen, to see if other mule deer herds need to be fed.
That stance is hypocritical to some observers. Catherine Garland of Aspen implored the agency to begin feeding bears last summer when a late frost and dry conditions damaged the berries and acorns on which bruins feast. The wildlife division steadfastly refused.
Bears regularly were Dumpster diving in Aspen and breaking into homes in search of food at an unprecedented rate last summer. Wildlife officers killed more than one dozen bears for violating the “two-strike policy” of breaking into residences or for any incident threatening humans.
Garland said Friday that she sees it as the duty of humans to look after wildlife. She cannot understand why deer are being fed now when bears weren’t last summer and fall. If a value judgment has to be made, she said, she would think bears were more worthy of being fed because they are “more intelligent.”
Garland said she hopes the wildlife division revisits its stance on bears the next time they face starvation.
Randy Hampton, an information specialist with the wildlife division, said feeding bears presents a different set of issues than feeding deer. Bears are intelligent, he said, and they will learn to associate humans with food ” creating even more problems. Bears may continue seeking human food sources even in years when natural foods are plentiful ” if they become habituated to handouts.
Wildlife officials said feeding bears in the backcountry won’t work because they would associate the food with humans. Depositing enough food to make a difference would be a logistical and financial nightmare. In addition, Hampton said, bears aren’t herd animals. By stockpiling food at certain places in the backcountry, it creates the risk of making the bears compete for food. It would give a whole new meaning to the phrase “food fight.”
“They’ll kill each other,” Hampton said.
Garland wondered if there is a species bias against bears. They are large, powerful and potentially imposing animals, she said. “There’s an element of fear with bears, and the DOW plays that up,” she said.
If there is a bias for deer over bear, it might be in terms of economic value. Deer hunters pump millions of dollars into the state’s economy. They give many small towns a huge economic boost in the fall. If the Gunnison Basin mule deer were not fed this winter, the economies of several towns in that area would take “a big hit” over the next few hunting seasons, Hampton said.
Bear hunts don’t draw nearly the same numbers.
In an average winter, 12 to 18 percent of a deer population will die, according to wildlife officials. More are expected to die this winter because of the deep snowpack and harsh temperatures.
“We’re not trying to save every deer in the Gunnison Basin,” said J. Wenum, area wildlife manager for Gunnison in a prepared statement. “More deer will probably die this year than in average years. But our feeding program is meant to avoid a catastrophic die off.”
Hampton noted that deer herds were severely depleted in parts of Colorado from the late 1980s into the 1990s.
“To set them back again would be irresponsible,” he said.
Black bear populations aren’t considered threatened, even though the mortality rate from last summer’s scarcity of food is unknown.
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