Don't Feed The Bears: we'll end up having to kill them



What impresses me about national park rangers is how damn efficient they are at responding to bear sightings… they seem to show up instantly and take control to make sure nothing bad happens.

While I’m sure some of it is aided by gps collars, not all bears have them.

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No one wants a mauled tourist on their watch.

Not even the bears.

One of the best stories I heard while researching this (and which may be apocryphal) involved a bear at Yosemite that had gotten into the habit of running angrily at hikers until they dropped their packs and ran. Then the bear got to eat what was in the pack. OM NOM NOM. Rangers flipped the scam around by standing still when the bear ran at them. Freaked out, the bear skidded to a halt and turned around and left.


I knew Colbert wasn’t lying to us.


I live in big bear country…grizzles and blacks at 53N in Western Canada. While everyone (almost) here attempts to avoid encounters and keep things like apple trees and garbage inaccessible, the bears are rampantly f’ing destructive with very little prompting. This past few days a bear came in and utterly destroyed out well cover. No garbage, no food, and probably not even ants to eat…10 feet from massive bushes full of Black Twinberries. The bear crap a few feet away shows that’s what they are eating. This bear clearly has a destructive bent.

Our meat chickens will be butchered Thursday…hopefully this bear stays away long enough to not kill any.

I spent 10 years working in northern BC and Alberta, and have encountered literally hundreds of bears. On one day I saw 17 bears (12 of them from my vehicle). I have only had two encounters with bears that I would call ‘alarming’. Bears are not inherently interested in humans or our stuff - but if we give them those positive connections they will come back for more food. In my neighbourhood there is a large black bear who will eat your garbage if you leave it out. He has been around for years and has not been a problem - nobody wants him dead, so nobody leaves out garbage and we all pick the fruit trees before they become a food source for him.

Alarming incident #1: A far north bush camp and a night off. Many of us sat around near my tent drinking beer and chatting. Many empty and partially empty cans of beer were left lying around (with the intention of picking them up in the morning). I got to spend a good part of the (very dark) night listening to a bear crunching and chewing his way through most of the cans outside my tent. Lesson: Clean up the mess BEFORE you go to bed.

Incident#2: Alone in the late evening on a cutline (firebreak), walking back to my truck. Very dark, so I didn’t see the black bear charging straight towards me until it was 15 feet away. We saw each other at about the same time. I froze while it made a slight course correction and ran right past me at full speed, close enough to touch. Definite pants changing time. Once I regathered my wits (no easy task), I was left to wonder what it was running from that was still ahead of me (it turned out to be a forester’s dog that had scared it off).


I just spoke with somebody that just spent a few weeks with Lynn Rogers. Lynn is a researcher in Ely, MN that is in the news right now for his research methods. He’s collaring and monitoring bears, but he’s getting close enough to the bears by hand feeding and conditioning them to come to the researchers willingly.

I just came back from Yellowstone, and the mantra there was, “A fed bear is a dead bear”- the rationale being that a bear that starts depending upon people as the source of food, even while well-mannered, can eventually act unpredictably in a fashion that’s going to end poorly for somebody else involved.

Meanwhile, the disconnect from the Acolyte I spoke with was stunning. She spoke about how the DNR was shutting down Roger’s research because they were jealous about the results he was producing.

  • The webcams generate more positive press for Rogers than the DNR gets.

  • The DNR insists on drugging bears to collar them, and they dislike that Rogers is showing them up by just hand-feeding the bears and getting his collars on “all naturally”

  • Black bears are super nice and loveable.

That was the thrust of her arguments, as I understood them. I still think it’s a colossally bad idea to have bears search out humans for food- not because I hate bears, but because the risk/reward balance is hugely askew.

Rogers almost makes me think that Troy Hurtubise (the gentleman making the Ursa bear-proof suits, firepaste and Angel Light) is a better model for a bear researcher.

Black Bears are pretty skittish all told. You could have probably scared off that can crunching one with a flashlight and some shouting, although I would avoid doing that until it’s far enough away that it won’t make a started swipe at you. No guarantees that it won’t come back later and try to finish the job however. There’s also a danger that it will be so startled that it runs away directly through a tent. They’re basically big raccoons, and as much as they like people food they are usually terrified of people.

Ya, all of my black bear encounters when I was a kid consisted of me looking at it and it looking at me and both of us turning around and heading in the opposite direction with much purpose…

To be overly pedantic and hopefully informative, the article misuses/confuses negative reinforcement with punishment in their skinnerian sense. A negative reinforcer is when something unpleasant is removed following a behavior, not when something unpleasant is applied following a behavior ( which is called punishment). In this case, I think all the ‘negative reinforcer’ examples are really punishments. I can’t think of any genuine negative reinforcer that would work well or be practical in the bear situation; something like a shock or choke collar that is always on unless the bear eats the right stuff. Invisible dog fences might be construed as a negative reinforcer, assuming you view the default of running around the neighborhood==shock, but staying in-bounds==lack of shock; this fails for the true behaviorist who would probably not consider sitting on the front step a behavior. Squirting a cat with water is clearly punishment, unless the squirting is constant for all behaviors except the one you hope to promote. But negative reinforcement can be very effective, because once you get ‘on the wagon’ you may really try to stay there, and never have to experience the unpleasantness again, as long as you don’t fall off the wagon. This is why whining is effective–your dog or child or SO is using a negative reinforcer on you.

It is common scientific wisdom that punishment is generally not as effective as reward; whether it is harder to pull off depends on the circumstances. I think the skinnerian story is that animals/humans appear to associate the punishment to the particular context, and so it does not generalize. If we get our mouths washed out with soap when we swear in front of our grandmother, we don’t necessarily stop swearing; we just stop swearing in front of our grandmother. Also, random reinforcement schedules can be very powerful and effective; I’m not sure about random punishment; this may not be as effective, but I don’t know the research.

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NPS seems to be doing good job with educating the public but somehow you can always find a few who managed to avoid learning anything. This is what happened to me when hiking in Yosemite:

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It’s a shame this policy can’t be applied to trolls.

I was similarly distracted by the incorrect use of the term negative reinforcement! There’s also a lot of interesting research related to which sort of classical conditioning can work with food and which sort doesn’t. For instance, loud noises may only be somewhat effective as a punishment for being near humans, but will have little association with the food humans have. On the other hand, if they put something in “human food” that made the bears nauseous, the bears would avoid eating the food (and thus have little reason to bother humans) after very little conditioning. It’s why taste aversions are so quickly developed!

I used negative reinforcement as it was explained to me by psychologist Ralph Miller.

Here is what he said: Any kind of reinforcement is about increasing an animal’s behavior. We call it positive reinforcement when, for example, the goal is to get the animal to approach an object. So leaving food out for bears is a positive reinforcement that promotes them investigating human stuff. We’d call it negative reinforcement when it increases the likelihood of the animal retreating from an object. So anything you’d do that increased the bears’ propensity to avoid humans would be negative reinforcement.

In fact, the issues could be traced back to humans… Fixed typo, no charge.

Maggie, I think in this case you need to make a note on the article and perhaps change the wording used.

The synopsis you gave of Ralph Miller’s explanation of negative reinforcement to you is clearly inaccurate. However, correcting that is not necessarily a simple matter of changing the terminology. You can find a correct explanation on Wikipedia: The diagram is particularly helpful. Negative reinforcement is rewarding (increasing) a behavior by taking something away (subtracting something, thus the “negative” terminology). The thing taken away is generally an unpleasant thing. Removal of pain is a very strong reward. For this reason, genuine negative reinforcement is actually a much stronger reinforcer than a simple reward.

The more complex issue is that it is very difficult even for the best researchers to tease out the differences between punishment and actual negative reinforcement sometimes. Should food be considered a reward, or a negative reinforcer? If it is merely a treat, it would be considered a reward. If an animal were living in starvation, provision of food would become a very powerful negative reinforcer - it takes away the pain of hunger. Torture (proper torture) is pure negative reinforcement - first you have to make life a constant hell for a long period of time, so that taking away that hell (to reward behaviors like talking) is a very powerful reward.

Applied to the bear situation, what is happening at this barbecue? Is it a light punishment for coming near the good smell of human food, or is it making “being around humans” a hellish experience that bears will do anything to get away from? While there is some room for argument, it is pretty clear that this strategy does not make simply being around humans such a bad experience that bears will avoid food just to get away from humans. Setting up that situation would probably require a prolonged period of very unpleasant captivity, analogous to torture.

On the other hand, for bears that have not become acclimated to being around humans, the experience of humans is naturally aversive, and they do avoid food because of human presence. Correcting the behavior of bears that have gotten that response off-track could be nearly impossible. It could be so hard, in fact, that killing the bears could end up being the most humane way to correct the problem.

I’m going to contact Miller again and double check this, but will make a change to the text if he says I’m getting it wrong. It’s entirely probable that he’s talking about this in a different way than Wikipedia and I prefer to make my changes based on what the experts tell me (no offense meant).

Thank you all for commenting on this, though. I’ll let you know if there’s an alteration made.

When I worked for the USFS pulling salmon from a fish trap, there happened to be a large confluence of black bears who congregated at the base of the falls to fish as well. Part of our problem was the bears, being smarter then most mammals, would sometimes take advantage of the fish trap at the top of the falls as it was easier to catch fish there and they could avoid other bears. Unlike brown bears that can be seen fishing next to each other the black bears took turns visiting the falls, we saw most often sows with cubs, sometimes triplets, fishing, it was the bulls who tried to use the trap.

To accomplish the effect of discouraging use of the trap, we used several things. We used bleach to get rid of smell, we had hand made spike strips that we laid down along the trap when we left (long nails in boards facing up), we put the spaghetti tags used for the fish away in a wooden box as the cubs loved the stuff to chew on and play with, and we carried a shotgun with rubber slugs followed by lead in case a bear decided not to stop. Most of the time when we came across each other they went the other way, if they didn’t, simply showing them the shotgun was enough - the shape is known to them and a stick did not have the same response. One time a old male who was probably blind and very skinny for that time of year was advancing when my coworker and I were at the trap, we yelled, made ourselves big, showed the shotgun but he was coming across the top straight for us. Well, I got to hit him twice with a rubber slug, the first time he stopped but the second sent him running. I feel sorry for that, he surely died that year and I may have helped by stressing him and disallowing use of the trap, but we didn’t see him again nor did we ever have evidence of a bear feeding there after that.

We had the camp kitchen and a dump ~5 miles away from camp, never once did those bears break into the cabins or kitchens, and I heard them at night thumping around and we found plenty of bear piles around to drive through too. They were everywhere. But we were smart.

When that trap and area is open to the public and regular tours come through, which will happen, we will have a preponderance of maulings. This is the near where Old Groaner was taken down and black bears have different goals then brown bears, if you want to be in the woods who can’t be a stupid human without something getting killed. We have to make sure we don’t train bears to go for humans that fish because a tasty treat is at the end of the line, we have to not offer food in any form which includes bacon grease in the outhouse (yes) or garbage outside our homes. The cost of obtaining food from humans needs to be too expensive to endeavor. So, stupid humans, if you don’t know what to do with your crap, your smells, your behavior, stay out of the woods. I think we need to make it too expensive energetically for stupid humans to be in the woods or interstitial zones myself. Maybe a test and practice exam is warranted.

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Our new policy is that the trolls will be fed to the bears.

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