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The ills of feeding bears fatty junk food: bear-human conflict, growing bear populations

In this February 2014 file photo, Kate McPherson of Windham (right) stacks boxes of petition signatures by Mainers who support a ban on bear baiting, hounding and trapping at the Bureau of Elections in Augusta.
In this February 2014 file photo, Kate McPherson of Windham (right) stacks boxes of petition signatures by Mainers who support a ban on bear baiting, hounding and trapping at the Bureau of Elections in Augusta. Buy Photo
Posted March 25, 2014, at 1:48 p.m.
Last modified March 25, 2014, at 4:14 p.m.

In November, Maine will decide whether to ban the baiting, hounding and trapping of black bears. Since Maine residents last voted on this issue in 2004, more data has been gathered from states that have voted to ban these methods. More than ever, we are certain the millions of pounds of junk food, doughnuts, bread and meat byproducts dumped in barrels in Maine are having a detrimental effect not just on the black bear population but on humans.

The Wildlife Society, a national nonprofit organization made up of wildlife professionals, completed a technical review in 2006. Some of the highlights:

— “Black bear movement, behavior, and habituation to humans are affected by the use of baiting and supplemental feeding throughout North America.”

— “Baiting and supplemental feeding can positively impact fecundity of black bears, reduce home range size, create high concentrations of bears around baiting sites, and increase the potential for nuisance bear problems.”

— “The high incidence of non-target species frequenting bear baiting sites suggests that diseases could be transmitted among these species at bait or feeding sites.”

— “Numerous states and territories found increased hunter numbers following prohibition of bear baiting. Although bear harvests may decrease initially, in some states it actually increased over time, or changed only marginally.”

The Wildlife Society leaves little doubt as to the harmful effects of baiting overall. It concludes, “The most effective deterrent to human-bear conflict is avoiding the temptation of making unnatural food sources available to bears.”

In a recent conversation with nationally recognized bear biologist Lynn Rogers, he told me that in his current study area in Minnesota, bears supplementally fed are 3.4 years old on average when they have their first offspring. In his research area where bears obtain only natural food, he said the average age bears will first give birth is 6.4 years.

We have created an artificial, annually occurring feeding season of two months every year.

As we review the science, we see more than enough evidence to support the idea that we are growing our bear population with high-fat junk food just before they are going to den in the fall. The cubs have a better chance of surviving due to higher fat concentrations. Bears are likely having cubs younger and becoming habituated to human foods.

The state says we need to kill more bears using the methods that are causing the increase in population and associated problems.

Contrary to what the state wants us to believe, bear baiting is not going on only in the North Woods. There is a baiting station 150 yards from my property in Penobscot, and we know that baiting is practiced across the state. We are growing our problems as we grow bear populations.

Our state says it practices the best management with baiting. I would suggest that a 30 percent increase in the bear population over the last nine years is not successful management. If we stop feeding bears millions of pounds of junk food, it is more than possible the population growth will slow to more natural numbers.

Wildlife agencies across the country tell people not to feed wild animals, particularly bears, and yet here in Maine we are encouraging it. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife website states, “Bears should never be allowed access to human food or garbage; it habituates them to people and increases the chance of conflict.”

Washington and Colorado have similar statements warning people not to feed wildlife and giving reasons outlined above by The Wildlife Society. These three states have banned baiting over the last 20 years. We need to look at what happened in those states after they banned these practices, not listen to the predictions our state is presenting as fact.

These states have continued to harvest as many or more bears than when baiting and hounding was legal. They are selling as many or more licenses than before the ban.

I encourage the people of Maine to look at all the facts. When we stop feeding the bears trailer loads of junk food and allow the foods bears naturally prefer, we will be conducting proper management. Then we will be closer to practicing ethical, biologically sound hunting.

Daryl DeJoy is executive director of the Wildlife Alliance of Maine and a registered Maine Guide since 1990.

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