Perhaps it was the pull of a painfully quintessential Canadian photo-op that led two people near Fort Nelson, B.C. to feed a grizzly bear a Timbit. It was, after all, only reported after photos surfaced on social media of the adolescent griz nibbling a jam-filled, powdered pastry from a man’s hand. The two people involved were charged last week under B.C.’s wildlife act for the offense that allegedly took place in summer 2017.
The story has elicited a lot of attention, probably because of the Canadiana-steeped subject matter, but also because of a pervading fear of bears that leaves many a person wondering: who hand-feeds a bear?
And the answer, luckily, is not many people.
But this luck doesn’t spare the intelligent folks who keep their hands inside the vehicle at all times or raised in the air while bellowing ‘woah bear,’ during a surprise encounter. This luck is for the bears who are at far greater risk than any person when this sort of hand-to-snout activity takes place.
Though, food conditioning doesn’t solely come out of acts as brazen as feeding a bear by hand. “You’d be hard pressed to think of a more dangerous way to condition a bear than what those people were doing, but poor attractant management is getting us part of the way there,” says Kyle Artelle, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Victoria and biologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
Improperly managing food and garbage, whether at a campsite or around your home, so that it’s accessible to bears also conditions them to see humans and human environments as a source of food. Bears that frequent human environments become ‘problem bears’ — a problem that then needs to be dealt with, leading to the phrase ‘A fed bear is a dead bear.’ In B.C. alone, last year, just under 500 black bears were killed due to human-bear conflicts, as well as 27 grizzlies. “You hear people talk about problem bears, but it’s almost always problem humans at the root of it,” says Artelle.
Across Canada and the United States, open dumps where bears would feed on human garbage and food waste were a common sight — and often photo-op, even in pre-social media days. Once they were finally fenced off, Artelle says, there were notable spikes in human-bear conflicts. Once a bear has a taste of calorically dense human food, it’s a hard source to replace.
Take the case of Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada mountains where scientists studied the tissues of black bears to estimate what proportion of their diet was derived from human food and garbage, and released their findings in the report, The changing anthropogenic diets of American black bears over the past century in Yosemite National Park. They found that for nearly half a century, up until 1971, park attendants and visitors openly fed bears, leading to high proportions of their diet consisting of these non-natural foods.
Even after this behaviour was curbed with the closure of designated bear-feeding areas, the proportion of food and garbage in bear diets remained high. This is what food conditioning looks like.
The situation was only rectified after 1999, with a half-million-dollar investment in mitigating human-bear interactions that included efforts to minimize the amount of food or garbage accessible to bears. Nowadays, the bears of Yosemite are eating proportions on par with their ancestors from 1915 to 1919. This is a truly remarkable shift when you consider that back in the early 1900s, visitors numbered in the thousands per year, and today are close to four million. That’s four million people who now, for the majority, know better than to reach a hand out of the car window, offering a ‘doughnut hole’ to an expectant black bear.