Given the recent query in comments about feeding the hungry bears, Randy Hampton from the Colorado Division of Wildlife sent me this.
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Why Feeding Stations for Bears Won’t Work
By Perry Will and Randy Hampton
Recent media reports have highlighted the challenges facing black bears this year. A late frost that eliminated a lot of the natural berry supply and a hot, dry summer have made food tough to come by for bears. Even some recent rainfall may be too little too late.
Now, some people are asking why the Division of Wildlife doesn’t set up feeding stations, drop dog food from helicopters or place restaurant waste food into the woods to keep bears from coming to town searching for food. We understand people’s desire to protect wildlife, but we want to point out some of the biological reasons that make feeding bears a bad idea.
First, while natural food is hard for bears to find, it isn’t impossible to find. Bears, like most animals, 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 supply chain of food. As long as the easy to find human food is available, bears will incorporate it into their diet.
Secondly, placing food in areas outside of town would feed bears that are already in those areas. This would provide human food for bears that are already surviving off of natural food sources. The bears that are in town being fed by careless trash disposal could stay in town and eat. Without eliminating human food sources, urban bears would have little reason to look elsewhere.
Thirdly, bears aren’t herd animals. They don’t like to eat together like deer or elk. 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 bigger bears.
Additionally, 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.
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 all those readily available supplies of trash, pet food, fruit 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, expanding recreational use of public lands and booming energy development, the population of bears may need to decrease. Over time, food shortages because of lost habitat and warming temperatures will reduce the bear population by reducing breeding success. Artificially feeding bears could actually create a biological situation where bear populations would increase, even though the habitat won’t support the population. Artificial feeding of bears would actually make the problem much worse and lead to the death of many additional bears in future years.
We continue to search for new information about bear management in urban areas. An ongoing study in Aspen and Glenwood Springs 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.
History shows that a bear’s dependence on human food can eventually lead to aggressive behavior. That’s why the DOW has to kill repeat nuisance offenders and any bear that shows aggression towards people. We don’t like to kill bears. It is one of the hard parts about being wildlife managers. That said, it is part of our job and to protect people we’ll continue to do our job. We’ll also continue our never ending plea for assistance from you, the people who can make a difference. If people can remember that we all live in bear country and can do their part to make trash, birdfeeders, barbecue grills, pet food, fruit and other attractants less available for bears, then we can reach a point where we can co-exist with bears.
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 Counties
Randy Hampton is the Public Information Officer for the Division of Wildlife Northwest Region.