By Randy Hampton
It seems like every other summer, there is one part of Colorado or another that suffers some kind of weather event that does away with the natural summer food supply for black bears. We dealt with late frosts in the summers of 2005 and 2007 and excessive rainfall causing berry crop failures in June of last year. With those natural events, the Division of Wildlife sees a dramatic increase in bear activity around towns in the affected area.
And sure as the bears show up, some people in the towns start to question why the Division of Wildlife doesn’t set up feeding stations in the woods to provide bears with plentiful food away from communities. The suggestions seem simple enough: drop dog food from helicopters, collect restaurant waste and put it in the woods, take up a donation to buy some kind of “bear chow” that will keep the bears from coming into town and risking their lives by rummaging through trash and homes.
The Division of Wildlife understands 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 abundant crabapple 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.
Second, placing food in areas outside of town would feed bears that are already in those areas. This would provide human-source 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.
Third, 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. Those little bears might actually become part of the big bears’ food chain.
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 cause 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 cannot 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 changing weather will reduce the bear population by reducing breeding success.
Artificially feeding bears would create a biological situation where bear populations would increase, even though the habitat won’t support the current population. Artificial feeding of bears would actually make the problem much worse and lead to the death of many additional bears in future years. Bear populations that are too large for the available habitat means more bear-on-bear territorial deaths, more bears killed by vehicles, more disease and more bears coming to town. In the simplest of biological terms, artificially feeding bears doesn’t help the problem it only makes it worse in the long run.
The Division of Wildlife continues 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.
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.
Our goal as wildlife managers is to have a healthy and thriving bear population in the state of Colorado. We hope that together with strong communities we can find the balance that will result in a thriving population while minimizing the amount of conflict that occurs between people and bears.
Randy Hampton is the Public Information Officer for the Division of Wildlife Northwest Region.