Slow Down: The Drought Is Turning Bears Into Roadkill

Wildlife deaths are up as more animals are forced out of the mountains in search of food and water.
(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Jan 5, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

One night last fall, a motorist hit a black bear that had wandered onto a road on the north shore of California’s Lake Tahoe, leaving the disoriented cub in the middle of the highway.

Someone else came across the young bear and called the sheriff’s department, which blocked the road. Then the authorities contacted Ann Bryant, the executive director of Bear League, an organization that rescues bears.

“I got there as fast as I could,” Bryant said. “He was about 40 pounds or so, and he kept trying to cross the road, so we assumed his mother was there, although we couldn’t see her. I put my arm around him and stayed with him all night since he had a concussion.”

The cub was reunited with his mother the next morning, but oddly enough, the mother bear herself was hit by a car two weeks later and is now recovering.

Accidents like these have become all too common as California’s drought extends into its fourth year, forcing a growing number of the state’s 25,000 black bears to come down from the mountains in search of food and water.

Wildfires like September’s devastating King fire in Northern California destroyed thousands of acres of bear habitat, further depriving the animals of food. Bryant estimates that about 300 bears have been killed over the last few months—many more than usual.

“Wildlife does get killed routinely, but not in these numbers,” she said. “Drought and forest fires are pushing bears into areas they’ve never been to before, where people have never had to encounter them.”

After wandering down from the backwoods, bears have no clue what to do when a car approaches.

Bryant’s rescue group now gets half a dozen phone calls daily from people who run across bears—in their backyard, on the road, and elsewhere. Front-lawn fountains, koi ponds, and backyard garbage cans have become sources of water and food for foraging bears.

Bears spend close to 20 hours a day hunting for and eating food in the fall to bulk up for the winter, and Bryant said the animals can smell food from miles away.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, however, is hesitant to blame the drought or food scarcity for the increase in bear and deer roadkill.

Department spokesman Andrew Hughan and wildlife biologist Jason Holley said the drought and wildfires are among many contributing factors to wildlife deaths.

“November is the rutting season for deer, and when they mate, they are not as careful—their hormones are at very high levels,” Holley said. “They do travel in the fall, and roads are a major barrier for them.”

Hughan said the department has not noted a dramatic rise in animals being killed but acknowledged that it does not keep detailed records of road-related deaths.

Bryant said she has no doubt the drought is to blame for a spike in bear deaths.

“As the drought worsens, there are going to be more bear-human conflict issues,” she said. “They’re not being aggressive; they’re just looking for food.”

One controversial solution her group supports is diversionary supplemental feeding, which involves dropping food for bears via helicopter or bikes so the animals do not leave their habitat. That flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which suggests that people should not feed bears, as it disrupts their natural instincts.

“Yes, this is a way of interfering, but it’s a way of interfering to mitigate a problem that can get completely out of control,” Bryant said. “Other places have done this—Alaska, Romania. They even take roadkill and drop it for the bears.”

There is one thing you can do: Slow down and brake for bears.