But experts in several states say extra feeding not the answer
Claims by bear advocates that providing food to lure hungry bears away from populated areas has been successful in other states lack both context and scientific proof, according to bear biologists in several states.
That practice, known as diversionary feeding, is being touted by Sandia Mountain BearWatch founder Jan Hayes and others as a way to save the Sandia bears, which are facing a third consecutive year of drought and a corresponding reduction in their natural food sources.
But New Mexico Department of Game and Fish officials, and their colleagues in Nevada, California, Washington and Oregon, say diversionary feeding causes more problems than it might solve.
Since midsummer, New Mexico Game and Fish officials have fielded numerous calls about nuisance bears in and around the Sandias, including in several east Albuquerque neighborhoods. Those calls have resulted in the relocation of 34 bears, 28 depredation kills – those necessitated when a bear poses a potential or actual danger to humans – and seven road kills. Those numbers are more than double what they were in 2010, when the current drought began. Last year, there were no relocations and 2 depredation kills.
Game and Fish spokeswoman Rachel Shockley said bear biologists attribute this year’s spike to three factors: the continued drought; the corresponding decrease in natural bear foods; and, surprisingly, a likely increase in the bear population.
“Those factors combined to create a perfect storm that has led to high nuisance activity,” Shockley said. “These nuisance bears have learned, and are learning, that human-derived foods are available.”
“Once a bear has learned that it can get food in town, it’s very hard – sometimes impossible – to break them of that habit,” she said.
Although Hayes claims that Game and Fish is allowing the decimation of bears in the Sandias, Shockley said their numbers appear to be increasing – but biologists aren’t sure by how much or why.
“We don’t have any information that specific,” she said.
Game and Fish uses partial counts and computer modeling to derive population estimates.
New Mexico’s estimated bear population – between 6,000 and 7,000 bears – is based on a comprehensive study conducted 13 years ago and modeling, which takes into consideration factors ranging from reported kills by hunters and documented road kills to bear births and the quality of the bear habitat.
Based on population estimates, department officials set an annual “sustainable harvest limit” – the number of bears that can be killed in a year and still maintain a sustainable bear population.
The Sandias have about 136 square miles of primary bear habitat that can, by Game and Fish estimates, support between 46.4 and 72.5 black bears.
While Game and Fish officials readily admit that their estimates are educated guesses, efforts are underway to get more reliable estimates.
“We’re doing a three-year study to get more specific (population) numbers, but that information won’t be available for quite a while,” Shockley said.
Although Hayes says the Sandia bears are “starving” and forage conditions are the worst in decades, Game and Fish officials insist there is sufficient natural food there to keep the bears healthy.
Rick Winslow, the state’s large-carnivore and furbearer specialist, said the Sandias are producing about 25 percent to 30 percent of an average natural bear food crop, which includes acorns, berries, insects, piñon nuts and other items.
Despite the shortage – which is improving with recent rains – Winslow said the Sandia bears are healthy, based on the condition of the 34 nuisance bears that have been caught in the Sandias and relocated this year.
“We’re not seeing unhealthy bears,” he said. “The bears being caught are average in appearance. They’re not emaciated, skinny or in poor health. By contrast, an underweight or sick bear has apparent signs of ill health, such as poor teeth, poor body condition and extremely low weight that makes them appear gaunt.”
To feed or not to feed
Hayes, who puts little faith in Game and Fish’s “guesstimates” and projections, is urging state officials to feed the Sandia bears temporarily so they can put on weight before going into winter hibernation.
The Game and Fish Department, along with bear biologists in several states contacted by the Journal, oppose such feeding. Among the reasons they cite are:
- It teaches bears to associate humans with a ready food source, causing safety issues that often force officials to kill problem bears.
- Feeding bears would create a false carrying capacity of the habitat and bears would become increasingly dependent upon human-provided food sources.
- Only dominant bears would benefit from supplemental feeding, because younger, nondominant bears would be driven off the feeding sites or killed by dominant bears. Other animals would also be attracted to the food.
- 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.
Still, Hayes and others claim that diversionary bear-feeding has worked in Nevada, Washington and Oregon.
None of the wildlife management agencies in those states – along with those in New Mexico, California, Minnesota and Wisconsin – endorses such feeding. Each of those states generally prohibits feeding of wildlife, especially bears.
Lake Tahoe, 2007
In 2007, the Bear League – a Homewood, Calif.-based bear advocacy organization, feared that a drought in the Lake Tahoe Basin was forcing far more bears than usual to forage for food in the small towns lining the western shore of Lake Tahoe, which straddles the Nevada-California state line.
“That moved a lot of the bears into towns around the lake,” Bear League founder Ann Bryant said in a phone interview.
By early summer, bears were raiding trash cans and Dumpsters.
“We started receiving reports, which began to ramp up pretty quickly, of more than 25 break-ins per night … where bears were breaking out windows and doors and going into homes,” she said.
The bear “invasion” continued unabated through midsummer, Bryant said.
“People were leaving their homes. Others were sitting in their yards ready to shoot any bears that wandered by,” she said. “It became utter chaos.”
In response, the Bear League departed from its mantra of “a fed bear is a dead bear.”
“We went to the California Department of Fish and Game (since renamed the California Department of Fish and Wildlife) and told them that we had the funding and the means” to begin a temporary bear-feeding program designed to get the bears back into the forests.
But California’s game and fish officials, she said, would not even discuss the proposal.
Although it’s illegal to feed big game animals in California, Bryant and some 250 volunteers collected tons of donated natural foods – including apples, nuts, greens, sunflower seeds and grapes – and began surreptitiously feeding the bears.
Beginning in September 2007, teams of Bear League volunteers scattered food on the outskirts of the villages on the lake’s western shore after sundown and gradually moved the feeding sites farther into the mountains and away from populated areas, often by backpack.
The illegal feeding continued through early November, when the bears started hibernating.
Hayes said problem-bear calls to the Bear League decreased almost immediately. Although Game and Fish officials predicted that, in the coming spring, the bears would be back in the towns looking for the handouts, Bryant said that didn’t happen.
“None of their predictions manifested. In fact, the next two years had the least number of problem bear calls,” she said.
“We don’t believe in supplemental feeding continuously unless it’s a disaster, which is what is happening in New Mexico,” Bryant said. “It’s absurd that they (New Mexico Game and Fish) won’t even consider it for a short term, just to get the bears in good shape and out of an area where they don’t want them.”
Like many of his wildlife management colleagues, Dave Garshelis, bear project leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources – which does not endorse diversionary feeding – is familiar with the Lake Tahoe “experiment.”
Garshelis said there are a number of problems with Bryant’s action: It was done illegally; it was done by nonscientists with emotional attachments to bears; and there were no detailed records on how it was conducted or what occurred afterward.
In fact, Garshelis said, there have been no scientifically validated studies on diversionary feeding of bears to lessen their interaction with humans.
“It would be nice if somebody would actually do a valid scientific study,” he said.
“And it would be an important development for science and the future. … Maybe it would work. Maybe it would change the minds of states that prohibit feeding. … maybe it would prove otherwise.”
Although Hayes has said bear feeding was successful in Nevada, Carl Lackey with the Nevada Department of Wildlife said the Bear League’s 2007 actions occurred on the California side of Lake Tahoe.
And he’s skeptical about its alleged success, saying it would be impossible for a few hundred backpackers to carry and distribute enough food to have any appreciable impact on the bear population around Lake Tahoe.
Marc Kenyon, senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said attributing any presumed reduction in nuisance bear reports after the Bear League’s actions in 2007 would be a stretch.
“You can’t really draw that conclusion. There might be some correlation there, but one did not cause the other,” he said.
Rich Beausoleil, bear and cougar biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said bear feeding can have unintended consequences.
He notes that nature has given female bears an innate mechanism to adapt their reproduction rate to their environment. If a sow goes to den in less than optimal physical condition, she will produce fewer or no offspring. If a sow is in optimal health when she dens, she’s likely to produce two to five cubs.
Beausoleil says it’s better to “let nature take its course” than to try to intervene by providing bears with food during hard times.
“The last thing we want to do is artificially affect their nutrition and, ultimately, their reproduction. We don’t want them having two or three cubs when they should only be having one. ”
Don Whittaker, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, agrees that diversionary feeding can throw bear biology a curve.
“What you’ve done is you’ve artificially created more animals that the natural landscape can support,” he said.
Hayes is undeterred by critics of diversionary bear feeding.
“Critics complain that diversionary feeding examples are not scientific or do not apply to what is happening to Sandia’s bears,” she said. “But common sense tells us that it will work. These bears’ behavior demonstrates the dire need to diversionary feed.”