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Drought fuels debate over supplemental bear feeding

State Game and Fish officers, in gray uniforms, and others help move a tranquilized bear that found its way to an apartment complex near Academy and Tramway last week. (Courtesy of Kaye Swafford)
State Game and Fish officers, in gray uniforms, and others help move a tranquilized bear that found its way to an apartment complex near Academy and Tramway last week. (Courtesy of Kaye Swafford)
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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Calls for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to temporarily feed bears in the Sandia Mountains – where shrinking habitat has been walloped by prolonged drought and a late spring freeze decimated the usual food sources – has reignited debate about the bears’ welfare.

Jan Hayes, founder of Sandia Mountain BearWatch, said she recently contacted state officials, including Gov. Susana Martinez’s office, suggesting that, should conditions in the Sandias get worse, Game and Fish begin “diversionary feeding” of the bears.

Diversionary feeding involves placing food in remote areas to draw, or divert, bears from foraging in areas where they’re more likely to encounter humans.

Already this year, more than a dozen Sandia bears have been killed because they came in contact with humans and were considered dangerous.

In a letter published in the Journal last Sunday , former U.S. Sen. Harrison Schmitt, who lives in the Sandias, said, “Survival of our local black bears requires that the governor and wildlife officials authorize emergency diversionary feeding in the bears’ normal, undeveloped range – at least until it is clear that the acorn and nut crops will be available in the fall.”

Hayes and Schmitt claim temporary diversionary feeding – sometimes carried out by state agencies and sometimes by private groups – has been successful in Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

But state Game and Fish officials issued a news release July 12 saying they don’t support “supplemental feeding” of bears for a variety of reasons, and that doing so would create more problems that it might solve.

“People may mean well and think they are doing the right thing by helping bears or other wildlife that may be experiencing a shortage of their natural foods,” said Stewart Liley, big-game program coordinator for Game and Fish. “In reality, the outcome usually is bad for the bears and bad for anyone who lives near those bears.”

Both sides admit that bears are having another difficult year in the Sandias because of dry conditions and a lack of natural food such as berries, fruit, acorns and cactus blooms. Since early summer, almost daily reports of bears foraging through populated areas from Rio Rancho to the Albuquerque foothills and throughout the Sandias have kept law enforcement and Game and Fish personnel busy.

Preliminary statistics on the Sandia bear population – which Game and Fish estimates is between 46 and 72 bears – support the notion that bear encounters are increasing.

In 2012, also a very dry year, no nuisance bears were trapped and relocated from the Sandias. So far this year, nine bears have been caught and moved elsewhere. On Friday, a dead bear was found along Interstate 40 near the Carnuel exit, the likely victim of a motorist.

And while there were two “depredation kills” of Sandia bears in 2012, there have been 13 such kills as of Monday, according to Game and Fish.

Depredation refers to animals that come into contact with humans and present a potential or actual danger, and are killed by Game and Fish personnel or landowners.

Because it’s impossible to accurately count any wildlife species, game managers use partial counts and computer modeling to reach population estimates.

Against supplemental feeding

Game and Fish provided a number of reasons for why it opposes supplemental feeding:

n Providing supplemental food to bears teaches them to associate humans with a ready food source, causing safety issues that often force officials to kill problem bears.

n Feeding bears would create a false carrying capacity of the habitat, where bears would become increasingly dependent upon artificial food sources.

n Only dominant bears would benefit from supplemental food “caches.” Younger, non-dominant bears would be driven off or killed by dominant bears protecting their food. Other animals would also be attracted to the food.

n Hikers, hunters and other forest visitors could be in danger if they happened upon a supplemental food cache that might be aggressively defended by bears.

n Purposefully feeding bears is contrary to state Game Commission rules that prohibit creating an attractive nuisance.

Cid Morgan, district ranger for the Sandia Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest, said putting out food for bears is illegal and poses dangers for both the bears and the people who encounter them. Fines can run up to $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for groups.

BearWatch’s Hayes said Tuesday that she has never suggested that individuals living in or near bear habitat feed the bears, and that her group has gone to great lengths to educate the public about the dangers – to bears and humans – of attracting bears with accessible garbage, bird and wildlife feeders and even barbecue grills.

“I wanted to give them (state officials) a heads-up, and I wanted to ask that – if things degenerate and get much, much worse to where there’s just absolutely nothing for these animals to eat – would you ask Game and Fish to consider doing diversionary feeding,” Hayes said. “I originally called it supplementary feeding, but there’s nothing to supplement.”

“Diversionary feeding would be to feed up high on the mountain,” and away from populated areas, she said.

Rick Winslow, Game and Fish’s large-carnivore biologist, said it was never clear what Hayes was asking for, and that state game managers feared people might start putting out food for the hungry bears.

In a form letter to Hayes and others regarding supplemental feeding of bears, Cal Baca, chief of the Game and Fish Department’s Wildlife Management Division, says, “Research clearly demonstrates that long-term impacts and liabilities are not worth the short-term benefits of supplemental feeding of wildlife and specifically bears.”

Hayes said supplemental feeding in other states and Canada – as she is suggesting here – were temporary measures meant to get the bears “over this starvation hump” of drought and lack of natural bear food.

She said the bears did not become dependent on the feedings – which have ranged from natural foods like apples and other fruits to road kill and dry dog food – and did not become habituated to the feeding sites.

“I’m not asking people to feed bears,” Hayes said emphatically. “I’m asking for Game and Fish to feed these bears” if conditions continue to decline.

Winslow said that, even if department officials could be convinced that supplemental feeding was a good idea, the logistics of doing so would pose a sizable challenge.

“I don’t think they (bear-feeding advocates), or anyone has really thought that through,” he said.

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