Backcountry food drops for bears prompt debate
RENO (AP) — For years, people have been urged not to feed bears. Now, some experts think backcountry food drops being made by dozens of residents at Lake Tahoe might just help hungry black bears survive.
Those dropping food by air and foot in remote locations are defying Nevada and California wildlife officials, who brand their actions as “misplaced kindness.” Feeding wild bears is illegal in California; Nevada has no such law.
The feeding effort comes amid a record number of bear complaints around Lake Tahoe this year, when a drought has drastically reduced their natural fare of berries and nuts. A record 75 bears also have been struck and killed by vehicles around the lake this year, according to the Lake Tahoe-based BEAR League.
“We certainly respect people’s intentions, but biologists and managers from all involved agencies in this situation agree that feeding bears is contrary to the goal of keeping bears wild,” said Russ Mason, game division chief with the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
State wildlife officials said feeding bears could make them more closely associate humans with food and make them more likely to congregate, raising the threat of disease transmission and confrontations.
The artificial food sources also could lead to more cubs when the land can’t support the animals, they added.
“I think this is exacerbating the very problem they want to decrease,” James Holley, a wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
While the BEAR League is not taking part in the feeding program, group leader Ann Bryant said it supports more than 30 residents, including pilots, who have dropped fruits, berries, nuts, fish and other food around Lake Tahoe in recent weeks.
One woman has spent about $10,000 on nuts and fruit so far and distributed them by foot in remote areas, Bryant said, adding similar programs have worked in Canada and Europe.
“Isn’t it a whole lot more natural if bears are foraging in backwoods and finding food than picking through someone’s refrigerator?” Bryant asked. “We have to get the bears out of our neighborhoods and bring them back to where they belong.
“I believe the people are doing a service, feeding bears in the backcountry. Where it’s being done, calls on home break-ins have dropped to virtually nil,” she said.
Lynn Rogers, a biologist with the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minn., said wildlife officials’ assertions are not supported by science and the supplemental food drops should be given a chance.
The loss of habitat to development has made it more difficult for bears to survive droughts, and the bruins only are heading to neighborhoods as a final resort, said Rogers, who has studied black bears for more than 40 years.
“I don’t know of anything the people are doing (at Lake Tahoe) that would create nuisance problems,” he said. “It has to be considered experimental, but there’s a growing body of data that suggests supplemental feeding can act as a buffer against nuisance behavior rather than an introduction to it.”
“The things (wildlife officials) say might go wrong with bears if you feed them, I think it’s more favorable for bears than being shot and hit on highways,” he added.
Wildlife officials have received hundreds of phone calls this year about bears raiding homes and trash bins around Lake Tahoe. More than a dozen bears have been killed by authorities after entering homes, Bryant said.
Holley acknowledged a scarcity of food because of the drought is driving bears into populated areas. He said no real solution may exist, and residents instead must maintain vigilance.
Other Western states also have reported a sharp increase in bear complaints this year.