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August 25, 2011

Bear Country, Part 4: Court of Last Resort

Diversionary feeding is sometimes used to lure hungry bears away from inhabited areas.

All Animals magazine

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    Paul Souders/Digital Vision/Getty Images

As successful as the Bear Smart approach generally is, though, it has its limits, as shown by the experience of Whistler, a resort community in British Columbia near Vancouver. After the resort opened in the 1980s, Whistler quickly grew in a valley inhabited by about 100 black bears. As development marched up the hillsides, it obliterated the vegetation and berries bears once fed on. Eventually, the houses of nearly 10,000 residents overran almost all the elevations that were low and warm enough to grow plants bears eat. The result: more years when the woods didn’t produce enough food and animals went hungry.

Most of Whistler’s residents secure their trash and don’t keep birdseed or any other foods outside. But still the bears come around in lean years; even if they’ve never been fed, they’re not going to lie down in the woods and starve. When bears find windows or doors open or unlocked—which occurs often, no matter how much Sylvia Dolson of the Get Bear Smart Society reminds people to secure them—the animals enter houses and are subsequently killed. In 2010, when natural food was scarce, 11 hungry bears were killed. As an alternative, Dolson hopes a local wildlife management agency will temporarily feed bears away from people’s homes.

Rogers and his fellow researcher Ann Bryant of the Bear League in Lake Tahoe say this type of intervention, known as diversionary feeding, may be the only way to keep bears in certain places from raiding people’s fruit trees or breaking into homes when natural food runs short. At an international bear association conference in July, both presented papers showing that the next year, bears go back to eating natural food.

"You can lead bears into trouble with food, but you can also lead bears out of trouble." 

Rogers did his research at a U.S. Forest Service campground in Minnesota where six bears had been removed for aggressively pursuing human food. People believed someone had left out food the bears had gotten a taste for. But Rogers says hunger, not feeding, drove bears to the campsites. By giving the animals beef fat, he reduced problems at the campground by 88 percent. Conflict stayed low in 1985, when weather conditions made food especially scarce for bears in Minnesota and complaints soared across most of the state.

“You can lead bears into trouble with food,” says Rogers. “But you can also lead bears out of trouble.”

In 2007 in Lake Tahoe, a major drought and two forest fires meant no fruit, acorns, or pinecones for the valley’s 600 bears. As many as 25 homes were broken into by hungry bears every night. The California Department of Fish and Game told Bryant’s group not to do diversionary feeding. But she and 200 volunteers did it anyway, placing apples donated by an orchard, as well as nuts and sunflower seeds, farther and farther into the woods. Immediately, the bears stopped going into homes. That winter, instead of 50 to 100 bears denning in the crawlspaces beneath people’s houses, they all found dens in the woods. The next year was the slowest on record for complaints.

Diversionary feeding is controversial and still relatively uncommon. John Hadidian, director of urban wildlife for The HSUS, says it’s an intriguing idea but must be approached with caution. “The problem is, the concept being out there, the general public is going to try it,” he says. Instead, such feeding should be done only by experts—who understand bears’ behavior and nutritional needs—and only if everything else has been tried and failed.

Whatever the approach, it’s clear that intervention is necessary. In encroaching on land the bears once had to themselves, we’ve altered the natural balance and become involved in the fate of these animals. As long as our strategies involve careful, informed choices and not hunters’ guns, we can live in and with the wild without having to destroy it. “It’s our responsibility to solve the problem,” says Bryant. ”And that doesn’t mean shooting all the bears.”

Living in bear country? Read these safety tips. »

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