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Diversionary Feeding

Although controversial, supplemental, diversionary or intercept feeding can be successfully used to discourage problem bear behaviour, as well as to prevent bears from debarking trees (Ziegltrum 2004, 2008) or preying on livestock. Keep in mind that all diversionary feeding should only be done by a wildlife management professional. In Slovenia, bear damage in diversionary feeding areas was only a third that in non-feeding areas (Klenzendorf 1997).

One of the biggest reasons for increased bear activity in residential areas is a seasonal shortage of natural foods in the nearby woods. Establishing select feeding sites can be effective in these situations, but it’s important to have a defined goal, a specific plan and a limited feeding program.

Dr. Ben Kilham, black bear rehabilitator and author of Among the Bears, realized early on that it’s all about food. “There’s nothing that will motivate a bear better than food, but the problem is that very little work has been done experimenting on developing effective ways to use it. It seemed that all the creative thinking stopped when the words “food-conditioned” and “habituated” started being used to describe bears that came into conflict with people. Nobody wanted to push bear control efforts in the direction of the problem itself. Kilham suggests using the same food the bears are feeding on in someone’s backyard, only delivered to them deep in the woods in good cover. Given a choice, bears will always take food at a more secure location. Wild animals killed by cars and trains have also been used.

Appropriate feeding sites must be secure: remote, in good cover and not readily accessible to hunters or well-meaning wildlife watchers. A good natural water source should be nearby. If it’s done correctly, bears will communicate the whereabouts of relocated food sites, making it cost effective to maintain the needed bait sites.

An attempt to feed a specific bear is unlikely to work if there are other bears in the area. Younger, less dominant bears may be displaced and may begin getting into trouble elsewhere – a situation where good intentions can go awry. However, a sufficient food supply in several different locations will prevent dominant bears from controlling bait sites and disrupting the social hierarchy in the bear community.

Conventional North American management of human-bear conflicts assumes that bears become more dangerous and destructive of human property if the bears have become food conditioned. Bears perceived as dangerous or destructive are usually killed. Conflict management to protect both people and bears focuses on minimizing bear access to anthropogenic foods. That can work where bears have access to sufficient wild foods. During famines of profitable wild foods, however, the key to minimizing conflicts can be providing food to bears – so-called diversionary baiting. Wild food supply is only one of numerous factors determining why provisioning bears intensifies conflicts in some situations, but minimizes conflicts in other situations.” Stringham et al, 2017

Diversionary feeding has become a controversial option because bear managers are concerned that using unnatural bear foods (albeit strategically located and delivered) will create so-called “habituated, food-conditioned” bears that might become “nuisances” or jeopardize public safety. However, at least one other study in Minnesota indicates that this is not the case.

In fact, diversionary feeding provided an opportunity for residents to meet the bears they feared and to develop more tolerant attitudes. Diversionary feeding reduced human-bear conflicts despite the fact that the bears were mislabeled as “habituated and food-conditioned”. The fact there was also continued availability of garbage in potential problem areas indicates that any efforts to mitigate problems by reducing attractants and/or aversive conditioning are likely to be more successful if coupled with diversionary feeding.

“There is a need for decision-makers to re-evaluate policies toward habituated bears, recognizing that habituation is a normal response to people in the bear’s increasingly fragmented environment and that habituated bears have not shown themselves to be a greater threat to public safety than non-habituated bears,” says Dr. Lynn Rogers, who conducted the study. “There is also a need for further study to determine the situations in which diversionary feeding can be most effective in mitigating human-bear conflict.”

Diversionary feeding is a temporary solution and is difficult to sustain over long periods of time (as it is costly and requires manpower resources to implement). It can, however, be considered during massive natural food failures. Over the long term, the only real cure to residential bear problems is for people to clean up food or garbage that may attract bears.