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Should we feed wild bears?

Wildlife advocates are using a radical, illegal, but apparently effective strategy to stop confrontations between humans and black bears: They're feeding the bears.
Some wildlife advocates say leaving food for bears in the woods can stop unwanted confrontations.
Some wildlife advocates say leaving food for bears in the woods can stop unwanted confrontations.iStockPhoto
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Some biologists and bear advocates are trying a truly radical, sometimes illegal, but apparently effective strategy to stop confrontations between humans and black bears: They are feeding the bears.

The tactic flies in the face of decades of lore that says feeding bears should condition them to seek foods only from humans and make them fearlessly "habituated" to human presence, and so more dangerous. Yet in the handful of cases where bears are fed properly, there are far fewer bear problems.

"Conditioning and habituation does not create nuisance bears," said Montana bear biologist Lynn Rogers of the Wildlife Research Institute in Minnesota. "Hunger does."

All home break-ins, tent raids and many other bear incidents are by bears who are suffering from forests damaged by fires, drought or other factors that have reduced their food supply, said Rogers. This intensifies when bears enter their "hyperphagic," heavy eating stage in the fall, before hibernation.

"It's food that they are after," explains U.S. Geological Survey biologist Chuck Schwartz, who is the leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. He said the same applies from grizzlies to black bears.

"These bears are in this state when they need this food to make it through the winter."

So why not scatter left over orchard fruit in the woods for bears to forage on? Well for one thing, such "diversionary feeding" can be against the law. That was the case at Lake Tahoe, Calif., where the Bear League tried it a few years ago and claim they saw immediate halt to bear break-ins.

"We had a drought, several forest fires and 20 bears a night were going into homes," said Ann Bryant of the Bear League. The forest hadn't enough food. Some argued that nature should take its course and the bears should die of starvation. The problem was, the bears didn't get that memo and started raiding homes, which means bears were facing off with people. When that happens, bears are generally the losers.

Two days after the unauthorized diversionary feeding started, said Bryant, the break-ins stopped in those areas. Where activists could not sneak the fruit past authorities, the break-ins continued, she said.

The strategy worked not only in Tahoe, but in a study he conducted in Minnesota as well, Rogers said. But the idea hasn't gained much traction due to centuries of hardcore anti-bear fear.

Contrary to popular images, bears are timid and prefer to eat in the woods, said Rogers. That's why the troubles almost always happen in the autumns of lean years.

As for the recent bear incident in Yellowstone National Park, it does not fit the pattern, said Schwartz, because it is too early in the year and there is plenty of forage in the woods.

"The only thing I can say is how rare it is," ventured Rogers.

Bears are intelligent animals capable of a range of behaviors. Most would never attack a human, he said. But in any population there are individuals who behave abnormally. Still, he added, only one in 50,000 grizzly bears might kill a human and one in a million black bears might do the same, Rogers said.

"The biggest problem the bears faces is excessive fear," said Rogers. That fear is backed up by everyone from the National Park Service to taxidermists who have universally posed bears with an angry snarl on their faces.

Another factor that has exacerbated bear-human troubles in recent years is the building of more homes in the woods, said Schwartz.

"We have people moving closer to bear habitat," said Schwartz. That could account for a slight increase in bear-human confrontations over the years.