The young male grizzly’s thick coat shimmered in the morning sunlight. Fat is fit for a bear, and this bear was very, very fit. Unfortunately, this bear had grown fit on an artificial diet of corn and black sunflower seeds put out by a landowner for the deer and the birds.
He had lost his natural fear of humans, and worse yet, he associated food with humans. Consequently, he found himself bouncing down a dusty road in my culvert trap and was soon sporting a brand new radio tracking collar, an ear tag and the dubious label of being a “nuisance bear.”
My love of bears started when I was 10 years old. It was 1969 and my family was on vacation in our nation’s premiere national park — Yellowstone! We were all thrilled to see dozens of bears lined up alongside the roads panhandling for food. I clearly remember my brother and me throwing marshmallows and cookies to the hungry bears who obviously relished the tasty treats. At the time, the Park Service actually allowed public viewings of the bears at open garbage dumps and had bleachers available for prime bear watching.
During the 1970s, however, the Park Service closed the dumps and banned feeding. A growing body of scientific evidence indicated that allowing bears to get human food was the worst thing that can happen to a wild bear.
Although bear attacks on humans are rare, a bear that has lost its natural fear of humans and associates humans with food is actually far more likely to attack and injure or kill people than wild bears are. Most of the time when a bear becomes a nuisance, however, it is the bear who winds up the loser. Conservation Officers must either trap and relocate the bear or euthanize the offender. Therefore, the goal of all bear managers today is to keep bears on a natural diet and away from people.
Tips for helping bears and avoiding conflicts with humans include:
• Never under any circumstances feed bears or allow them to get food near your home.
• Do not feed wildlife, including birds, during the time when bears are active (April through October).
• Store all garbage in a locked garage or shed, or use bear proof garbage cans.
• Feed your pets inside or only put out enough food for one feeding.
• Do not compost anything except grass and leaves.
• Pick fruit from trees as soon as it ripens and clean rotten fruit off the ground. Electric fencing is highly effective for bear proofing orchards.
I have high hopes for bears that we trap and move. My hope is that they adapt to their new surroundings and make a good living in a wild place. Regrettably, far too many times in my career I have seen “fed bears” wind up as “dead bears.”
If you have questions concerning “living with bears” please call the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at (208) 769-1414.
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Brian Johnson is a conservation officer employed with Idaho Fish and Game.