Why Feeding Stations for Bears Won't Work
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.
Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan's Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of "Hiking Idaho." He also wrote "Beyond the Tetons" and "Backpacking Wyoming's Teton and Washakie Wilderness." He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.
14 Responses to Why Feeding Stations for Bears Won't Work
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I am very curious how it is that feeding the bears is such a bad idea, while here in the Mexican wolf reintroduction area, government agencies are busy feeding the [supposedly wild] wolves.
Black bears are so numerous in N. America, with an estimated population of around 500,000, I don’t think they require supplemental feeding.
However, I think the Grizzly soon will need help. If the Cutthroat vanishes (as seems more and more likely), Whitebark Pines continue to die back (as they are), and if global warming decimates Army Cutworm Moths as predicted, then the grizzly will be in desperate straits.
There are so few Grizzly, and all their major foods are in peril. It is hard for me to understand how the Grizzly will survive in the lower 48 states in the next 20-30 years. Particularly in view of the fact the government is easing protections of the Grizzly as I write this so that more of the Grizzly’s habitat can be logged and explored for gas.
I also don’t agree with some of the statements of the biologists that wrote the article. However, this post is long enough already. 🙂
What about putting natural foods like road-killed elk and deer strategically in the backcountry but relatively close to town (a few miles away?) in an attempt to keep bears out of towns?
Feeding endangered animals (wolves in cred’s post) to assure survival is different than feeding thousands of black bears, which are common/abundant throughout their range in Colorado.
Roadkill in Colorado is commonly left for wild animals to feed on. As an agency we don’t pick up roadkill. The Colorado Department of Transportation does collect roadkill, but their preference is to pull the carcass away from the road and leave it when possible. Roadkill in urban or residential areas is hauled away, but the “supply” isn’t great enough to have any kind of luring effect.
I’d love to hear what you disagree with SmokyMtMan. We don’t claim to be right all of the time, so if there’s something wrong… post away. And I’m an information guy/former journalist… so I won’t claim to be a biologist. I did work with one to write that piece though and he’s a pretty good one. (and now my post is long enough too)
Re: supplementary feeding of reintroduced Mexican gray wolves, the Arizona Game and Fish Department web site has the following information (under Frequently Asked Questions)–
Do Mexican wolves have to be fed so that they will survive?
Guidelines for the extent and duration of supplemental feeding are provided within SOP 8.0, Supplemental Feeding . The IFT provides “carnivore logs,” made for zoo carnivores, and carcasses of road-killed ungulates to wolves following initial releases or translocations. This is kept to a minimum and is generally done for one to two months following the release/translocation or until the wolves begin to find food on their own. In addition, the IFT does sometime feed wolves in association with control or trapping actions (for example, to localize the group for more efficient removal), or when wolf deaths or injuries require temporary supplemental feeding to sustain surviving wolves, especially females shortly before or after giving birth to pups. Outside of these specific instances, the IFT does not feed wolves. Once the packs have become established in an area, they are not fed by the IFT, and these packs must kill and scavenge sufficient prey to meet the pack’s biological needs.
Note: IFT=Interagency Field Team, which includes members of the six cooperating agencies in the Mexican wolf reintroduction–USFWS, AZGFD, NMDG&F, USFS, USDA Wildlife Services, and the White Mountain Apache Tribe.
I write respectfully, as I am not a biologist, just someone that lived on the border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for 7 years.
“First, while natural food is hard for bears to find, it isn’t impossible to find.” In the Smokies, during typical wet years the hardwood forests provide huge mast crops and the black bear populations maintain a high density. In drought years, like the one we are experiencing, the food available to bears is much reduced. There is simply not enough food sources to maintain the population at it’s current levels, as oak trees, the mainstay of the bear’s diet in the fall, are very sensitive to rainfall and will produce only a few acorns in drought years. Plainly put, this means that many bears must leave the Park to find food, or starve.
The statement seems to infer that bears will always be able to find sufficient food in the wild to survive. I don’t believe this to be the case. I have observed starving bears, and indeed, the only human fatality due to bear predation in the Great Smokies M.N.P. involved a female bear that was starving (it had zero fat reserves, and had begun to metabolize muscle). It probably wasn’t the only factor, as the victim likely committed a 1 or 2 errors of judgment as well. But bears at times do find it impossible to locate enough food to survive.
“Secondly, placing food in areas outside of town would feed bears that are already in those areas.” But aren’t these the same bears that are coming down from the back-country to locate food in urban areas? Where are the urban bears coming from? Certainly they aren’t in town all the time! They are simply back-country bears that must find food, and they are not locating enough to survive in the wild.
Anyway, just my 2 cents. I really enjoyed the article, thought it was well-written, and agreed with almost all of it. It was informative, and I thank you and Perry Will for your work.
Thanks for carrying on the discussion. I think it is a critically important conversation to have as we move forward as managers. And maybe we’re wrong (we don’t believe so… but)… without those willing to challenge and question our management we can never learn anything. So, keep it up and don’t take my defense of our management position personally.
Many of our mountain communities are home to year-round bears. They may have started out as wild bears, but people over time have turned them into bears that are completely dependent on human food sources and incapable of living in the wild. Visit Aspen some time and you’ll see this disturbing trend.
I guess people should also consider some of the “big picture” problems when it comes to supporting supplemental feeding. First, if drought causes these problems and climate experts are correct about global climate change… droughts will be more common and these feeding programs would not be supplemental, but would have to become regular feeding. If drought becomes the norm… it isn’t drought anymore, it’s just the weather. We’re on year 8 here in western Colorado.
The other factors that are driving this increasing human conflict are related to habitat loss:
1. human population growth
2. increased recreational activity
3. rapidly increasing energy development leading to habitat fragmentation and disturbance
I won’t try and write a book and explain these items nor will I offer judgment about whether these things are good or bad. I merely will say that WE as a society have decided that these things outweigh the habitat requirements of black bears. To simply ignore the reasons for the problem and try to assuage our guilt through a feeding program is somewhat shortsided. If the available habitat is decreased, then the population should be accordingly adjusted down. Providing false habitat and feeding these animals will only lead to additional problems.
Thanks for the reply. Apparently, there are major differences (and sad similarities) between bear realities in the East and the West. I moved to Boise, Idaho 5 weeks ago, and now realize what I have learned about bears while living with and learning about them in the East may not translate so well here.
You write: “Many of our mountain communities are home to year-round bears.” I am shocked by this fact. In the East, Federal and State managers have done an excellent job of educating the public regarding feeding of bears. Where it was a common thing of the past, it has been reduced so substantially, it is almost non-existent. I lived in Gatlinburg, Tenn for 2 years in the foothills of the G.S.M.N. Park, and had witnessed many bears feeding in dumpsters and trash cans. The city in 2001 then passed an ordinance requiring all businesses to purchase bear-proof trash cans (as the Park and surrounding National Forests did) and this has reduced bears in town drastically. The motto “a fed bear is a dead bear” is practically seen by every tourist and visitor to the area. That is a testament to the successful and strong educational efforts, through Park newspapers, maps, local newspaper articles and editorials, increased ranger enforcement and fines, etc that has made a very positive step toward greatly reducing bear conflicts/feeding.
This success is due in part to the fact the Park is only 520,000 acres, and bear populations in the East are not as large nor as widely scattered as here in the West. It is not practical nor economically viable to enforce a law requiring all businesses in bear country to use bear-proof trash cans in the West.
Your statement “it isn’t drought anymore, it’s just the weather” is well-put (and sobering). Drought is more persistent in parts of the West than I fully appreciated. I fully agree that supplemental feeding of black bears is not a good idea for the reasons you mentioned. I would also add the natural ebb and flow of bear populations in response to environmental stresses contribute greatly to their ability to maintain genetic variability in relation to a changing environment. This is crucial to survival of species, as low genetic variation translates to high vulnerability to alterations in the habitat of the species. In other words, a species loses the ability to adapt as changes occur, and they are rapidly changing across the West.
If bears were un-naturally fed across their range, this would harm their adaptability to their environment. Making them even more dependent upon humans in the long run. The growth and impact of the oil/gas industry here in the West is another factor distinguishing the east from the West. Population growth certainly isn’t, though! That is truly the root cause of every environmental problem facing us. Every negative environmental price currently being paid is a base result of more people, in more places, demanding more resources, than ever before. Unfortunately, our environmental problems can only increase and become worse in light of the fact human population will increase far into the future.
I learned a lot from our discussion, thanks, Randy. I hope this isn’t too long (it probably is, sorry!).
Good stuff, SmokyMtMan and thanks for the good back-and-forth.
One final note (lest we both be accused of being verbose and beating the poor dead horse)… the Colorado Division of Wildlife has done an incredible educational job in terms of telling the public about not feeding bears. Snowmass Village was the first community in the United States to pass a trash ordinance aimed at bear protection in the 1990s. The “Fed Bear is a Dead Bear” is well understood.
Our current situation stems from a unique communication problem… extremely transient populations. Mountain towns ‘turn over’ every week or two during the summer months. Year ’round residents know the bear message in their sleep, but the guy who flies into Aspen from New York or Chicago may not. That person is “on vacation” and unlikely to pick up local newspapers or watch local television, so traditional communication methods are not effective.
Secondly, these folks think it’s “neat” to have bears around. They take pictures to show their pals back home. In some cases they lure bears for this purpose. (We issue citations in these cases where we find them) These people don’t recognize that they are creating a problem for the next person to rent that cabin or condo… and ultimately a problem for the bear.
We’re working on quite a bit right now to address this challenge. The CDOW has teamed with Colorado State University and the National Wildlife Research Center to conduct a major study of “urban” black bears. It’s an incredible study that is showing us a ton about bear behavior outside of the natural environment. We’re also planning to get our communications professionals and our biologists together early next year to address some of the “new” challenges we face in the “new West” when it comes to black bear management.
That said, I feel for my counterparts in other western states that must also deal with these same kind of significant challenges with more charasmatic mega-fauna such as the Grizzly.
Thanks for the discussion. Very important stuff.
I just spoke with someone who does work for the Ft. Collins Research Center for Wildlife Services, Dr. John Shivak. He’s based out of Logan, Utah.
He says Wildlife Services will “feed” wild animals to keep them away from livestock.
What does everyone think of that? I’m not sure how I feel about that one to be honest….. (
Do you work professionally for a certain organization or are you a freelance journalist?
Sorry — Randy — I see you work for the CO Division of Wildlife. Sorry!
What Mr. Shivak really means is that they feed the elk in order to keep them off of the public lands that ranchers want to graze thier livestock on. The wild herds compete with their cattle for grazing. It is better for ranchers if the government (tax payers actually) foots the bill for feeding wildlife so that ranchers can have the free grass on public lands.
That’s outrageous — ranchers have no right to graze their cattle on our public lands as it displaces deserving and native wildlife!
Hopefully all those leasing permits will be permanently retired soon — and let the wildlife re-inhabit the areas used by profit making enterprises.