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Human food can help, but it can also hurt local ursine populations

The abundance of human food in towns and cities can help and hurt bears.

Talk of the bear population was plentiful in the bad bear season of 2012. This year, with an abundance of natural food available to bears and less human-bear conflict, not so much.

You would expect to see a spike in the birth rate after a year with abundant natural food. But, when bears have access to human food, are we supporting the birth rate in poor natural-food years as well?

Whenever I think of this, I’m reminded of the words of a bear researcher who said that you can take marginal bear habitat and make it into exceptional bear habitat simply by adding homes and associated human-provided foods.

Researchers are studying whether urban environs serve as “sources” or “sinks” for bears. Meaning, are urban areas – with their wealth of high-calorie, human-provided foods (trash, bird feeders, fruit trees, etc.) – beneficial or harmful to them. Human food can nourish bears but also lead to increased bear mortality (those killed for nuisance activity or by vehicles), which can result in regional population declines.

Research elsewhere has revealed that bears with access to human food can weigh up to a third more and are able to produce more cubs than their wild counterparts. In poor natural-food years, females were still able to produce cubs when they had access to human food.

One could question the logic of desiring a reduction in bear numbers and conflict while, at the same time, making human food available to bears.

Does increased mortality offset any possible benefits? In 2012, in our area, 82 bears were killed by vehicles, euthanized or shot as nuisances. The bear that “benefited” by feasting on apples in a yard was actually far more likely to be killed by a vehicle, for example, than a bear feeding in the wild.

So, is the abundance of human food in our area beneficial to bears or does it do more harm than good? Aspen is thought by state researchers to be a bear “sink,” and it would be easy to assume the same for here.

I hope research being conducted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife can shed light on questions about our bear numbers – and what impacts, positive or negative, our feeding of bears plays in their activity and population dynamics.

Fruit-gleaning program

In an effort to feed community members instead of bears, the Colorado State University Extension Office, Healthy Food Communities and Bear Smart Durango have collaborated on a website to match residents wanting fruit with those who have excess.

The website lists the variety of fruit available, the location of trees to be harvested and general contact information. For more information, visit bearsmartdurango.org/community-resource/help-with-picking-fruit. The Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College has launched a similar program as well.

We hope to make this popular program more available next year. As with many things bear-related, the more residents participate, the more human-bear conflict can be reduced.

bp@frontier.net. Bryan Peterson is director of Bear Smart Durango, formed in 2003 to educate residents about coexisting with bears and reduce the amount of human food available to bears. Visit www.bearsmartdurango.org or follow on Facebook.

Jun 6, 2016
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