Don’t Feed the Bears—They Need Natural, Organic Diets Too

New studies find that giving black bears handouts from humans makes them fat, lazy, and prone to disease.

(Photo: Carl Iwasaki/Getty Images)

Oct 17, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Walking through head-high sagebrush in Yellowstone National Park, a couple of field researchers and I ran into a grizzly bear heading straight toward us at a gallop. The bear had better things on its mind, luckily for us. It was elk-calving season, and between us and the bear, three elk cows were racing away, pink mouths open, eyes wide with fear, trying to protect their young. They cut left, and the bear followed, moving at a rocky sprint, its loose brown flanks rippling in the sunlight, intent on hunting down its dinner.

Maybe it wasn’t the safest way to see grizzlies, but for the bear, it was heaven. The animal was visibly better off than in those long decades when the National Park Service allowed Yellowstone grizzlies to become dependent on garbage dumps and roadside tourist handouts. Since that practice abruptly ended in the 1970s, the Yellowstone bears have become wild again, learning which foods to eat in which seasons and living by their considerable wits.

Incredibly, though, there are places in North America where the tourist-handout approach persists. In Canada’s Quebec province, travel companies bill it as “ecotourism.” They set up feeding stations on private land to provide paying guests with what they describe as a “one-of-a-kind encounter with the black bear of Quebec.” It is perhaps a reliable way to see black bears. But it borders on consumer fraud to pretend these animals are “wild.”

The feeding stations effectively domesticate the bears, changing their behavior and feeding habits. The authors of a study in The Journal of Wildlife Management focused on a feeding station about two and a half hours north of Quebec City, in the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region. They put GPS collars on bears near the feeding station and on bears several kilometers away that were known not to frequent the feeding station. Then researchers started taking notes.

Bears at the feeding station did what you might expect: They sat and ate—and ate some more. On average, those bears weighed about 40 percent more than their wild-foraging counterparts. Their home ranges shrank to about a third of the size of a wild bear’s home range. They also crowded around the feeding station at a much higher density than is typical in the wild. Just about the only thing missing was a television and a couch.

The food left for the bears is often garbage by another name, consisting of scraps and frying oil. “This diet is certainly not very good for bears,” said Christian Dussault, a researcher at the Quebec Ministry for Forestry, Fauna, and Parks and an author of the paper. The increased weights of the bears may, however, mean that they’re able to breed sooner and more frequently because females can reproduce only once they’ve achieved a certain weight. Over time, this may change the population dynamics of black bears in the area.

That’s not necessarily a good thing. A paper published this summer in Biology Letters detailed how feeding wild animals helps spread pathogens and disease through a population, by bringing more animals into closer contact than would occur in the wild. While the black bear study did not evaluate the bears’ health, Dussault said that it’s possible that the fed animals could also have higher rates of disease. Moreover, the tendency of the bears to hang out within about a kilometer of the feeding station creates a potential hazard not just for them but for people in the area. Too many bears artificially attracted to one site could “result in increased human-bear conflict in the same area.”

This is the first study to quantify how bears behave around feeding sites. The data could lead to regulatory standards for the 50 or so such feeding stations in the province, Dussault said. It may also help wildlife managers or lawmakers figure out where—or whether—it would be safe to locate a new feeding station.

So what’s a family that wants to see bears—but doesn’t want to patronize feeding stations—supposed to do? Buy a good set of binoculars, park in a likely location (ask park rangers or local naturalists for a hint), and pay attention to the elk or other prey animals. They’ll point and stare or even walk straight toward an approaching predator. That’s your big clue.

It may sound easier to just feed the animals and let them come to you. But the very act of feeding a wild animal makes it less wild. You and your kids will be a lot more thrilled and more inspired observing one bear under natural conditions than seeing dozens of them looking for a handout.