Reports of incidents with black bears have been reported since my first articles on bears earlier this summer. Several area beekeepers have lost hives to bears. There have been the usual tipped over garbage cans and a couple of break-ins into cabins and a garage. But no one was killed and so some wondered what’s the big deal about a little food left out for the hungry animals. And bears appeared to be exceedingly hungry this spring and early summer, possibly because of a severe depletion of stored fat over the harsh winter and the slow start to vegetation this spring. So giving them a little ‘boost’ shouldn’t be a big deal.
But in Oregon state wildlife officials became the target of outrage when they shot and killed a wild male black bear that had become so tame people were taking pictures with it. People were leaving human food on a regular basis for the animal so that within a short amount of time the bear began to associate humans with food. The bear had become so hooked on the human offerings it would not go back into the wild to seek its natural food and simply waited usually out in the open for a handout. Eventually the bear was deemed a public nuisance and potential threat to the local human population and property and so it was killed. Though many undoubtedly thought feeding the bear was a harmless or even beneficial act, in truth this bear was the victim of human ignorance.
As has been mentioned before in this column, sometimes the worst thing that can be done for wild animals is to feed them human food. In fact it should never be done unless there is no other alternative and survival of the species is at stake. Arizona wildlife biologists have put forth a saying: A fed bear is a dead bear because nearly all that become hooked on human food eventually have to be killed.
Once a black bear finds a source of human food it will keep returning. Once that source is gone it will look elsewhere where there are humans. In their minds human scent becomes associated with something good to eat. One criticism the Oregon officials got was that many said the bear should have been relocated to a remote area. But bears, especially male bears, do not do well with relocation outside their natural territory as they then come into conflict with the established bear population and are usually driven away, and the appetite for human food is so strong they still would be drawn to humans.
So what should be done about black bears that cross paths with humans? If the intent is to give the bear the best chance of survival, then every effort should be made to instill in them a fear of humans, so that rather than associate humans and food, they associate humans with fear. Inflict non-lethal pain. Yet most people who leave food out for black bears are not interested in the welfare of the animal. Many do it to see a bear up close or to get a good picture. Or just to be able to brag about the bear in their back yard or by the cabin. It is really a selfish motive to serve human interests and not the welfare of the animal. If they care about wildlife, they will let them be wild in their own environment.
For the beekeepers out there, one of the best non-lethal methods to protect honeybee hives is an electric fence installed around them. A neighbor, who lost his first hive this spring to a bear that broke through cattle fencing and wooden planks to gain access to the bee larva, set up an electric fence around the replacement. He also set up a trail camera to capture the results of his efforts. The first video pictures were of deer and fawns but then in broad daylight a bear comes out of the woods and walks boldly toward his new hive. It suddenly stopped short of the fence and then raised first one front paw and then the other. Without even touching the electrified fence, it turned and ran away. Studies have shown that black bears can somehow sense the pulse in the wire and are frightened away by it. My neighbor saved his hive and got some great wildlife video in the process.