Access to human foods

February 16, 2010 - 6:35 PM CST

We’ll keep this shorter than yesterday’s update.  For those who didn’t read the whole thing, the data show that the rare killings by black bears tend to be in food-poor habitat where the bears have had little contact with people.  Contrary to popular notions, bears that get used to people and bears that have been hand-fed are among the least likely to kill someone.  There are exceptions to everything, of course, but feeding a black bear does not turn it into a killer.

At least one author links eating human food to killings by grizzly bears.  We need to be careful not to confuse coincidence with cause and effect.  Remember how few problems there were with grizzly bears back when they frequented garbage dumps in Yellowstone?   It’s the same with black bears.  Back when there were a lot of garbage dumps, we asked a roomful of 300 top bear biologists from across North America if any of them had ever heard of anyone being injured by a black bear at a garbage dump.  No one had.  Back then, the evening entertainment in small towns was to watch bears at dumps.  People hand-fed them and tried to make them stand up for food, but it was hard to tease bears with food when there was so much garbage available.

At any rate, there is nothing to support the speculation that garbage gives bears a taste for human food, causes them to associate people with food, and eventually to regard people as food.  The pattern of data is strongly against that line of thought.  For more on that, check out the research paper entitled “Does diversionary feeding create nuisance bears and jeopardize public safety?” 

A problem when someone states with great authority that eating garbage can predispose a bear to eat people is that people too often accept the warning without questioning the science, or lack of it, behind it.  People end up unnecessarily fearing bears and unnecessarily killing them for eating garbage.

Thank you again for your continuing contributions.  The mugs and mouse pads look really good.  The mouse pad picture came out great.  The same picture will soon be available as a nice 8x10 for framing (hand-signed ‘Lily’ in gold).

—Lynn Rogers and Sue Mansfield, Biologists, North American Bear Center