Bears: Why feeding wildlife won’t work |

Bears: Why feeding wildlife won’t work

Perry Will and Randy Hampton

It is another bad year for bears. Like 2002 and 2004, 2007 started off with a frost that lessened the natural food supply. Now, hot and dry weather has lessened the supply even more.While natural food is hard for bears to find, it isn’t impossible to find. But like most animals bears are opportunistic feeders – they want food that is easy to find. Unfortunately, easy food often comes from people. Whether it is trash, birdfeeders, barbecue grills, pet food or fruit trees, bears have adapted to a new way to fatten up for the winter. As long as the easy-to-find human food is available, many bears will incorporate it into their diet.History shows that a bear’s dependence on human food leads to aggressive behavior. That’s why the Division of Wildlife has to kill repeat nuisance offenders and any bear that shows aggression toward people. We don’t like to kill bears. It is one of the hardest parts about being wildlife managers. That said, it is part of our job, and to protect people, we’ll continue to do our job.Recently, people have asked if the DOW could feed bears. Suggestions have ranged from collecting grocery store perishables to dropping dog food from helicopters. While these ideas seem easier than cleaning up a community’s trash problem, bear biology makes feeding bears a bad idea.First, placing food in areas outside of town would attract bears that are already in those areas. This would provide easy food for bears that are already surviving off of natural food sources. The bears that are in town being fed by careless trash disposal would stay in town and eat. Without eliminating human food sources, urban bears would have no reason to look elsewhere for food.Secondly, bears aren’t herd animals. They don’t like to eat together. Providing feeding areas for bears would only feed the biggest, oldest and strongest bears. Yearling bears and cubs that are most susceptible to starvation would merely be lured into confrontations with more aggressive older bears. Mother Nature has a violent set of rules which would result in the death of the same bears people are trying to “help.”Thirdly, feeding would ultimately result in bears being dependent on humans for food. Bears would learn that things like grocery store trash or pet food are good foods too. Even if they never saw the humans that left these food items, bears would likely search these foods out in the future.Some people suggest planting natural food items such as berries and oaks for the bears in hope of alleviating food shortages; however, the same weather events that caused natural food production failures will also affect the planted shrubs.Additionally, black bears are mobile feeders. They eat at one location until they get full, then they move on. Because they process food very quickly, they stop frequently in multiple locations to fill up. Even feeding bears in areas outside of town won’t prevent the bears from coming to town for readily available supplies of trash, pet food and bird seed.Finally, if the bear habitat in western Colorado can not support current bear populations because of reoccurring drought, rapid human population growth and energy development, the population of bears may need to adjust. Over time, food shortages will reduce the bear population by reducing breeding success. Artificially feeding bears could actually create a biological situation where bear population would increase, whether the habitat will support it or not. The feeding of bears in an emergency would turn into constant feeding to prevent die off. This would turn a few bear deaths this year into more bear deaths in the future.We continue to search for new information about bear management in urban areas. An ongoing study with CSU and the National Wildlife Research Center will hopefully give us some new approaches to managing urban bears when the study is completed in 2010.The DOW will continue to do the difficult job, and often unpopular job, of protecting humans from potentially aggressive bears. We will also continue our never ending plea for assistance from you, the people who can make a difference. However, as long as local communities continue to develop and build in prime bear habitat, we will continue to see bears in town. The key is not to provide the bears with human foods, so we can continue co-existing with bears for future generations and value our experience viewing them.We appreciate the efforts of people and communities in western Colorado to eliminate trash and other bear attractants. Strongly enforced local ordinances are important. Volunteers are also needed for Bear Aware teams that educate people about bears and how to live in black bear country. For info contact the DOW office in Glenwood Springs at 947-2920. Perry Will is the Area Wildlife Manager for the Division of Wildlife in Glenwood Springs. He oversees district wildlife managers in Pitkin, Eagle and eastern Garfield Counties. Randy Hampton is the public information officer for the Northwest region of the Colorado Division of Wildlife.