Risks and dangers of feeding black bears 6.4

Written by David Green.

By Michigan DNR 

Spring and summer can be very difficult seasons in the life of Michigan’s black bears. They emerge from their dens with depleted energy supplies following a long winter period of inactivity at a time when natural foods are scarce. In addition, bear family groups begin to break up with the onset of breeding activity, which occurs in May and June.

Yearling bear (1½-year-olds) soon realize their mother no longer favors their companionship when her interest turns to breeding. This is especially true for young males, who are aggressively driven away by their mother. In search of their own territory, these young males are most likely to come into contact with humans and create problems. 

Black bear have huge appetites and an excellent sense of smell. They are capable of remembering the locations of reliable food sources from year to year and will travel great distances to find food. When natural foods such as tender grasses and vegetation, nuts, berries and insects are scarce, bear are more likely to come into contact with people.

Problems occur when bear attempt to feed on human foods, garbage, compost, pet foods or birdseeds. Bird feeders are one of the biggest attractants of bear to homes and yards in Michigan.

According to the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division, in 672 reports of bear activity received over the past two years, 281 (42%) were bear that were attracted to bird feeders. In an additional 23% of the cases, bear were attracted to garbage or were intentionally fed.

Although bear are secretive and shy by nature, they will tolerate contact with people for food. To avoid possible confrontations and property damage from bear, the most effective and long-lasting strategy is prevention.

Never intentionally feed bear. With the exception of baiting for hunting purposes in remote areas, placing food to attract bear near homes, cottages, parks, campgrounds and picnic areas may teach them to associate people with food. This may place both bear and people at risk.

Some people consider bear in close contact with people as a threat to human safety; bear in these situations occasionally may be killed.

Attracting bear close to people also may increase their risk of being killed by vehicles on roads, too.

“Road-killed bears near rural subdivisions often have stomachs full of bird seed,” said DNR Wildlife Biologist Larry Visser of Cadillac, who has studied the habits of bears for more than two decades.

Bears that become habituated to people and cause property damage sometimes have to be trapped and moved—an expensive and time-consuming project that often fails to solve the problem. These moved bear may just become problems in new areas.

The DNR recommends the following actions for potential bear problems:

• Bear in bird feeder or suet: Remove all bird feeders.

• Bear in garbage can or dumpster: Store garbage containers in a secure location. Do not put out for pickup the night before and be sure lids on dumpsters are securely fastened.

• Bear in a tree in a residential area: Clear all people and dogs from the site to allow the bear to come down on its own and leave. Treed bear are more inclined to leave at dark if left undisturbed.

“Cities like Cadillac are particularly vulnerable to problems resulting from bear feeding because of the proximity of good natural bear habitat adjacent to urban neighborhoods, lakeshore residences, and state and city parks,” said Ruthann French, wildlife technician in Cadillac. 

The city of Cadillac has two lakes with their associated wetland complexes in proximity to urban areas and intensive lakeshore development where good spring and early summer bear habitat may occur right beyond people’s backyards. These nutrient-rich wetland marshes provide natural foods, home territories for resident female bear to rear their young and provide travel corridors for other bear throughout the year. 

People who live in these unique environments of Michigan have a special responsibility to be good stewards of the wildlife that also resides here, including avoiding conflicts with bear. 

If you live in one of these unique bear habitat areas or have had a bear visit your neighborhood, making little adjustments—such as temporarily removing your bird feeders—can make a big difference in minimizing human/bear conflicts.

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