Can feeding bears in the backcountry reduce bear-human conflict?


It’s been a hairy summer in New Mexico. In late June, a black bear attracted by birdfeeders tore into a tent at a campsite near Raton. The two women inside managed to escape and scare the bear off with their car alarm. Earlier that month, north of Cimarron, a 400-lb bear clawed its way into the room of a bedridden 82-year-old woman, who sustained minor scratches on her face. New Mexico Department of Game and Fish officials killed both bruins.

Meanwhile, bear sightings have become de rigueur in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains and within Albuquerque. An extraordinary drought has gripped the state, and a late frost hammered bears’ natural food sources. The combo has left them with little choice but to roam for calories, which are often easily available in and around human homes in the form of unsecured garbage, pet food and birdseed.

New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Conservation Officer Kyle Jackson inspects a bear suspected of attacking an elderly Cimarron woman Tuesday night.

The situation is bad enough this year – with Game and Fish having already killed about a dozen Sandia bears for posing danger to people – that the nonprofit Sandia Mountain BearWatch has called on the state to initiate an emergency “diversionary” feeding program. The idea is that, by placing food sources in remote areas, officials could divert the mountains’ small population of bears away from communities, at least until local food sources improve, thereby protecting both bears and people. “During droughts in past centuries, Sandia’s bears would leave the mountain to find water and forage along the Rio Grande,” the group’s director Jan Hayes wrote in an op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal. “Now these bears have a half million people, roads, cars, dogs, Game and Fish and police officers chasing them in their desperate bid to survive.”

The state has made clear that it won’t support the practice on the grounds that it could cause bears to associate humans with food, potentially leading to more conflicts in the long run, and artificially boost the local bear population beyond what the habitat can support. “People may mean well and think they are doing the right thing by helping bears or other wildlife,” Stewart Liley, state big-game program coordinator, said in a press release. “In reality, the outcome usually is bad for the bears and bad for anyone who lives near those bears.”

Not to be deterred, BearWatch and the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club took their campaign to the governor’s office late last week, claiming that 1,300 residents have contacted Susana Martinez to initiate diversionary feeding.

There appears to be little if any peer-reviewed research on the efficacy of diversionary bear feeding programs in populated areas. Parks Canada has had some success diverting black and grizzly bears away from roadways by collecting and storing roadkilled carcasses through the winter and then planting them on ridgetops far away from tourists in the spring, where bears can feed in peace.

The Lake Tahoe-based BEAR League orchestrated an illegal food drop late in 2007, a particularly bad year, with native food sources ravaged by both drought and wildfire, where bears regularly broke into area houses for food, denned beneath them to be close to water, and were frequently struck by cars. The group claims that, in neighborhoods near drop sites, break-ins immediately stopped, and that no bears denned under houses the following winter. Normally, at least 30 would do so.

The most visible proponent of the approach is bear biologist Lynn Rogers, who conducts research and leads “courses,” wherein participants have close encounters with wild bears, in northern Minnesota. (Check out this video of Rogers smooching a giant black bear.) In 2010, National Geographic News reported that:

Rogers draws his conclusions from long-running field experiments, including one state-government-administered project in which he and a team placed food … (near) homes and campsites. … During the three years prior to the tests, which started in 1984, six nuisance bears had been removed by local officials. However, during the eight years of experiments that followed — including the worst year for naturally occurring black bear food on
record — only one bear was removed. … "Food," Rogers believes, "can lead bears into trouble — or out of it."

Trouble is, Rogers’ work – and his unusual methods, which have apparently involved feeding his subjects directly from his own mouth – is now being blamed for escalating human bear conflicts in the area where he’s been conducting research, reports the Pioneer Press. In late June, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources ordered him to stop and refused to renew his research permit, set to expire July 31. On Monday, a court at least partially vindicated Rogers, allowing him to continue his research with new restrictions on feeding and other activities.

Whatever the results of such experiments, under most states’ policies, “a fed bear is a dead bear.” Animals habituated to humans and their food are regarded as a threat, and justifiably so, since habituation is often associated with attacks on people. Moreover, National Geographic News reports, regular feeding can dramatically alter bear behavior: “A 2003 peer-reviewed study showed that ‘urban’ bears consistently exposed to human garbage … (became) primarily nocturnal and (spent) less time in dens.”

Still, with humans so thoroughly occupying and altering bear country, both directly with our recreation and suburban development and indirectly through climate change, it’s no longer clear what it means to let nature take its course. Wildlife managers are increasingly faced with tough decisions about how deeply to get involved in manipulating natural systems as habitats degrade, whether it be by actively sustaining endangered species no longer able to survive on their own in the wild or even by assisting species’ migration to more suitable climes.

"We've done a really poor job, in many cases, of developing land
without taking into account animal migration and feeding patterns," bear biologist Rachel Mazur of Nevada's Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest told National Geographic News. "Feeding them will, of course, reduce conflict in the
short term. But … if we're trying to
protect black bears as a species, I believe we should be protecting everything about them — their ecology, habitat and natural movement."

Sarah Gilman is High Country News' associate editor.

Image courtesy of New Mexico Game and Fish.

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