Bear Encounters: Why Feeding a 500-Pound Animal is a Bad Idea
Bruins that associate camps and homes with easy to access food lose their ingrained fear of people
The undulating hills of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York are so vast and filled with dense forests that spotting black bears which inhabit these mountains can be a challenge. For most outdoor enthusiasts, simply being among the birch trees and rushing streams, and listening to the lone cries of the dignified loon is pleasure enough. For others, who perhaps expect more of a safari or zoo-like experience, not being able to spot a bear can prove frustrating.
Photo by Jim Mullhaupt
There is one practice that will likely improve the chances of seeing a bear — putting out food — but it is not recommended by wildlife experts.
Leaving food and garbage around a campsite, as many a weekend visitor to the wilderness has been known to do, attracts the ever-sniffing noses of the resident black bear community. Sure, it means that one gets to spot that elusive bear, but the consequences of such an up-close encounter can prove deadly — for both the human and the bear.
Bears are omnivorous. Most of them will eat anything from nuts to deer to carrion, and they range wide in their search for food. Bruins living around frequently used backcountry campsites as well as communities bordering forested areas quickly figure out that these places can be a source of easy food. They begin visiting campgrounds and wood-side homes regularly looking for handouts or uneaten stuff tossed into garbage bins. The problem is, once bears come to associate these places with easy to get food, they lose some of their ingrained fear of people.
Wildlife experts say that many of the bears implicated in attacks on humans are animals who have become habituated to people because they’ve either received handouts or have scavenged food at campsites and garbage bins or livestock enclosures near rural and suburban homes. As wildlife habitats shrink across North America and at the same time conservation efforts help black bear and grizzly bear populations rebound, human encounters with such “habituated” bears are on the rise.
In 2012, there were more than 120 complaints about aggressive black bears, labeled Class 1 bears, in New York State, according to a recently released report on bear management. The number of such complaints back in 2006 was about 50. A Class 1 bear, the report describes, has “behaviors that are clearly dangerous to humans, pets, or livestock (e.g., enter occupied or unoccupied homes, attack pets or livestock, display aggressive behavior toward humans).”
It’s much the same case with West Coast grizzlies, or brown bears, whose populations too, are growing and dispersing across the region, moving into areas where people may have seen the smaller black bears but have little experience with grizzlies which are much larger.
“We’re starting to see [grizzlies in] communities that haven’t seen grizzly bears in 50 years,” says Erin Edge, Rockies and Plains representative for Defenders of Wildlife and an expert on coexistence issues with brown bears, or grizzly bears, as they are known in the lower 48. Edge has been working mostly with communities in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana to reduce food conditioning and habituation; Edge is on the frontlines of these human-bear conflicts. “They may have black bear issues, which are very similar, but they haven’t seen grizzly bears. So in those cases, it’s somewhat that people just don’t know that grizzly bears are going to get into their chicken coops, or their small hobby livestock, or bird feeders.”
“Say, for instance, a grizzly bear goes into an area near a residence, and gets into a garbage can, and then finds a bird feeder hanging on the porch, and then sees another garbage can on the porch or pet food,” Edge says. “That bear becomes food-conditioned, basically treat training to some degree, kind of like what we do with our domestic dog. But it’s basically training that bear that these things are food resources. So those bears tend to stick around, and when bears do things like kill chickens or break into homes, they can be deemed as threats to human safety. And then wildlife management agencies have to put them down, or sometimes the homeowners kill them because they are afraid that they’re a human safety threat.”
Fatalities are still rare. An abstract for a 2011 study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management states that 63 people were killed by non-captive black bears from 1900-2009; however, 86 percent of those attacks took place after 1960, and in 38 percent of incidents, “peoples’ food or garbage probably influenced the bear being in the attack location.”
North America has three bear species. The most common and the smallest is the black bear, which currently has a healthy population of about 600,000 spread out in at least 40 US states, plus Canada and Mexico, followed by the grizzly (population 33,000) which is mostly found in West Coast states, and polar bears, the largest and most threatened of the three (estimated population 20,000 to 25,000). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species categorizes black bears as increasing, brown bears as stable, and polar bears as decreasing (due to climate change and pollutants).
Photo by Kenneth J Gill
Edge says she believes the two largest threats to grizzly recovery in the lower 48 are habitat loss and these human-related mortalities, and sometimes these two causes are connected. Bears, without enough undeveloped area to live, are opportunistic. “It’s so much easier for them to just open a garbage can then it is for them to graze for huckleberries, per say, or maybe kill a deer fawn,” she says.
Despite the harsh reality of feeding wildlife, positive developments are present. Edge says that many communities are cleaning up the garbage, taking bird feeders in after the spring season, and educating residents. She has even seen waste haulers purchase or lend bear-resistant garbage cans to towns. “There is a move forward to improve this, and I think it’s gaining traction,” Edge says.
Chuck Bartlebaugh, director of the Be Bear Aware campaign, runs bear avoidance education programs. Recently he’s been working in Washington state, spreading the message that feeding bears can lead to graphically horrific ends.
“I found out it wasn’t the bear that was dangerous, it was the action of people that was dangerous,” Bartlebaugh says about his early career. “The poor bear just wants the same thing that you and I want, and that’s to be left alone.”
Although he’s still waiting for a “sincere effort” from government agencies, Bartlebaugh has witnessed communities change their ways. The problem is not always with the local residents though; the problem comes in the summer months when the annual tourist migration occurs.
“Now that we have photographs taken with cell phones, even more people want to feed,” says Bartlebaugh, who has an uncommon knowledge of the incidents that have occurred when bears and humans get too close. “We’re heading to a thing I call disposal wildlife. Tourist shows up and feeds them. The bears become conditioned. Then they become habituated to people, and then they come and dispose of them after the tourist season. What a waste. What a horrible way to treat wildlife.”
If a neighbor feeds bears, concerned residents should write “strong” letters to local first responders, Bartlebaugh says. If the fire department, police department, and mayor are notified, then it’s on the record that “human-habituated and food-conditioned bears” are in the area. “Wildlife when mixed with inappropriate human interaction creates a problem,” he says.
Bartlebaugh says some places have found success in stopping the feeding. Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Glacier National Park receive high marks for bear-resistant containers and sanitation programs. Yellowstone reports that in the 1960s bear-related human injuries numbered 45 per year. In the 2000s, that number decreased to one per year. Property damage, bear removals, and killing of bears have also dropped, thanks to a 1970 management plan that included proper food storage and closing of garbage dumps.
“Employees from every level, from dishwashers to interpretive staff, know not to encourage feeding bears,” Bartlebaugh says.
Feeding wildlife became illegal in the national parks in 1983. Since then, managers have “intensified” efforts to reduce wild creatures’ access to human food, Kirsten Leong, who works with the Human Dimensions of Biological Resource Management for the National Park Service, wrote in an email to the Journal. This includes using “averse conditioning” techniques, such as using noisemakers and shooting with beanbags to “teach curious bears to stay away from developed areas.”
“A recent study of historical bear diets at Yosemite National Park showed that this hard work has paid off; bears in the park today have the same proportion of human food in their diet as they did in the early 1900s, even though annual visitation has increased into the millions,” she wrote.
There are several other solutions that can help keep human-bear conflicts to a minimum, such as electric fencing around livestock enclosures and installing bear-resistant garbage cans. But in some cases these solutions might come too late to save the bear. A bear’s behavior is also carefully researched before it is labeled as problematic, Leong says. Park officials take care to determine whether “the individual bear was displaying natural behavior expected of wild bears” or whether the bear has learned behaviors that could prove dangerous. However, she says, once a bear has become food conditioned, un-learning that behavior is difficult.
Bartlebaugh remembers a three-legged bear named Tripod he used to see in Yellowstone. After the bear lost a leg in a trap, Bartlebaugh would watch it persevere in the environment. Eventually, Tripod was shot and killed, Bartlebaugh says, and as a wildlife enthusiast that reality was extremely difficult to take. “This bear had become horribly habituated to both people and to garbage,” he says. “I would like nothing more than bears to walk beside me. It really is something that I think we have in our psyche, except for I know what can happen.”
When feeding wildlife, habituation and food conditioning aren’t the only concerns. Animals in the wild need to fend for themselves, and many species eat unique diets that should not be disrupted. While bears may be able to enjoy everything from garbage to huckleberries to salmon, not all wild animals are so varied in their food selection.
Jeff Holland, curator of mammals at the Los Angeles Zoo, deals with the intricate diets of animals on a daily basis. “Usually the animals have adapted [to] their particular environment with those particular food items in that environment,” he says. “So you start playing around with that, you start having other problems, whether it’s obesity, or diabetes, or malnutrition, any number of things.”
The Los Angeles Zoo tries to mimic the exact diets each animal would have in the wild. This is not always possible. Sometimes exotic food is not available, so creativity needs to take over — but the choices are carefully thought out. Holland’s team also provides the mammals with behavioral enrichment opportunities, and this likely is not considered when a tourist willingly feeds bears or garbage is left out. The food is not simply given to them but rather hidden in logs or placed into boxes. This causes them to search and work for the food, hopefully leading them to expend some energy to reduce the threat of obesity or lethargy.
A bear that needs to forage for berries may develop different skills than a bear that relies on haphazard dumping of garbage. It might be a situation of tourists treating wild animals more like captive animals. “A lot of the animals in the national parks you’ll see become habituated to begging for food … and that’s a really bad situation when you get that,” Holland says.
The zoo curator says black bear populations around Los Angeles are growing. “Right now in the area around Los Angeles, up in the Angeles Forest, bear populations are doing very well, and we’re seeing more and more of them coming down into the foothill communities,” he says. “The trash is such an easy source of food for them, and so they start getting into that, they get into the backyards, they start getting [in] more conflict with people and everything. It’s neither good for the animal or for the humans because there’s that risk of danger.”
These situations, happening in communities across North America, are leading to encounters that can become YouTube sensations and Instagram delights. On the other side of that spectrum, these encounters can also lead to death. No matter the outcome, that bears now face an altered future.
“The reality is if a bear escalates a behavior over a period of time, there just comes a point where relocation isn’t possible anymore and averse conditioning isn’t working,” Edge says. “Please do not, do not feed the wildlife. It does them no good and, for bears, it ends up usually with their death.”