Don't Feed the Bears

Prevent food-conditioned bruins. 

Another grizzly bear is gone from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and I am fuming. This bear, killed in self-defense, brings the number of grizzlies lost in the GYE so far this year to 42. Angry? Hell yeah. This was a food-conditioned bear that had obtained numerous food rewards for weeks in my own neighborhood: gardens, unsecured garbage, horse feed, even a refrigerator stored outside on a deck. Am I mad? Furious, actually. This food-conditioned bear had become bold and aggressive, as expected, claiming my neighborhood as her territory, which grizzlies will instinctively defend.

I teach bear safety and work as a naturalist at an educational wildlife park that focuses on teaching people how to live safely in bear country. This is deeply personal for me. Since my first summer in Yellowstone, in 1984, I have loved, respected, and even healthily feared grizzly bears. I am an advocate for wild grizzlies and the space they need to live. This particular bear death was also deeply personal for me because it was my neighborhood that had fed this bear for weeks, my garage that was broken into, my picture window with the bloody paw prints on it (with my brother-in-law and dogs on the other side), and my husband who shot the charging bear.

Yes, there was an elk carcass in the closed garage. We live in a neighborhood full of hunters and have a carcass in the garage the better part of every hunting season; but we have never had a problem with bears. A healthy, normal wild bear would not take the risk to enter a human-populated area, even for a carcass. It is simply too dangerous. But a food-conditioned bear, which is a bear that has become accustomed to getting into human food sources, may risk its own safety to obtain easy, high-calorie food rewards. And then they change.

This bear had been obtaining multiple food rewards in several neighborhoods for weeks. Moments before she broke into our garage she was on our neighbor’s deck, tearing into their grill and attempting to break into their house. My husband and brother-in-law were watching football when they heard the crashing from the garage. My husband grabbed his 300 magnum instinctively, went outside, and was met by a roaring, charging bear. He shot her in self-defense, then immediately called 911. No one was happy with this outcome, but this bear was doomed. We, that is human society as a whole, fed her, and she paid the ultimate price. The old saying, a fed bear is a dead bear, was unfortunately perfectly played out in this tragic scenario.

If you care about wild bears, you should know that nine out of ten food-conditioned bears end up dead. Most food-conditioned bears start with bird feeders. A typical bird feeder will have anywhere between 5,000 to 15,000 calories, which is an easy food reward for a bear. But bears will go after any easy food source if it is easily available and accessible: pet food, horse feed, grills, freezers, coolers, and, of course, garbage. If you care about wild bears, shooting a bear in self-defense or legal hunting should not be your big concern; bird-feeders, trash, dog food, chicken coops… now that should get your blood boiling. So keep it clean. Do your part, and call out your friends and neighbors who are part of the problem. Be the solution. Let’s keep wild bears out there in the wild, where they belong.