Bear feeding program has 3 decades of success

2017-05-23 Ashley Bach

In 1985, the Washington Forest Protection Association, in cooperation with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, founded what has gone on to become one of the most innovative and effective programs in the world to prevent black bears from damaging healthy trees. The program is compliant with all laws and regulations and is a partnership with the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Read more below about the state’s Supplemental Bear Feeding Program.

Q: Why was there a need for the program?

There have long been problems with bears, porcupines, beavers, deer and elk damaging trees while they forage for food. And black bears, by far, do the most damage. A single foraging bear can peel bark from as many as 70 young trees a day trying to reach the sweet layer of a tree trunk behind the bark. With its bark stripped away, a young tree of 15 to 25 years old becomes susceptible to insects, windbreak and disease, and often dies. The bears, if left to their own devices, cause millions of dollars of damage a year to tree stands, particularly in western Washington. 

Q: How did the Supplemental Bear Feeding Program come about?

Wildlife and forestry experts knew that there was a brief, two-and-a-half-month window in early spring when the bears did all the tree bark peeling. This is the period when bears are just coming out of their dens after hibernating through the winter, and the abundance and nutritional value of natural foods are limited. A couple months later, as the weather warms, there will be enough berries and other food sources for the bears, but until then, the bears often tear into trees in search of a meal rich in carbohydrates.

Since the 1940s, there had been various efforts in Washington to prevent the bears from damaging the trees, and in 1985 state and forestry leaders came up with the idea of temporarily feeding the bears – only during this two-and-a-half-month window – to stop them from damaging the trees. 

Thirty two years later, the WFPA uses between 250,000 and 450,000 pounds of high-carbohydrate chicken protein pellets each spring to feed the bears at about 400 feeding stations in Western Washington.

Q: Why has the program endured for more than three decades?

It works, and it works well. Scientific studies have shown that the damage in treated tree stands where the bears are being fed each spring is six times less than where the supplemental food is not available. The program is preventing millions of dollars of damage to trees each year.

The feeding program also does not impact the rest of the bears’ feeding habits. Once the weather warms and other food sources like berries are plentiful, the bears immediately stop eating the pellets and move on to their natural food sources.

The supplemental feeding program is the only non-lethal bear damage control tool available in the world and is used alongside other options to control the bears’ tree bark peeling. But over the years, the feeding program has proven to be the most effective option by a large margin.

Q: Are some of the bears removed?

The feeding program is the most effective and widely used option to control the tree damage from bears. But there are a limited number of depredation permits given to hunters to remove bears that are damaging private timber stands.

Q: How are these hunters regulated?

Only hunters who go through a strict state review process are allowed to remove bears. The hunting season is very short, each hunter can take no more than one bear and the hunters must report all activity to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, regardless of whether any bears were removed. The hunters are also not allowed to act until tree damage has been verified by the state, and the landowner has received all the necessary permits and approvals. 

Q: Do the feeding stations attract poachers?

No, there is no evidence of that. If someone wanted to poach a bear, going to a feeding station would be the worst place for it. Many stations are monitored by cameras, and there are officials from the Department of Fish and Wildlife nearby to patrol who is coming in and out of the area. All of the feeding stations are also on private land with high security, including private security guards and locked gates on the roads.

Q: Why does the Supplemental Bear Feeding Program work as a partnership between WFPA and the Department of Fish and Wildlife?

One of the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s responsibilities by law is to protect trees, on both public and private land, from animal damage. But the state has never had the budget to fully protect and patrol the millions of acres of forestland around Washington. The state, by working with WDFW, is able to significantly reduce the animal damage to trees and at minimal taxpayer expense.