DNR reminder: Don't feed the bears
Many West Virginians don't realize it, but it's illegal to feed bears.
Every year, though, people do just that - and it almost always ends badly for the bears.
Bear feeding has been illegal since the 1980s, when videotapes of people hand-feeding bears at a Cabin Creek trash dump frightened lawmakers into passing a law prohibiting bear feeding of any sort.
Colin Carpenter, the state Division of Natural Resources' bear project leader, said people still feed bears in spite of the law.
"Some people will illegally set out food so they can get a closer look at this often secretive animal," he said. "However, these actions often lead to the destruction of the bear."
When bears find food, they tend to stay around until the food source dries up. When humans feed bears, the bears quickly lose their fear and often begin poking around people's houses in search of easy meals.
Wildlife officials used to try to trap these "nuisance bears" and relocate them to areas where there are fewer humans. Carpenter said the process was costly and often ineffective. Relocated bears - especially young males - have been known to travel more than 100 miles to return to a favored feeding spot.
Since 1977, the statewide bear population has mushroomed from an estimated 500 animals to roughly 12,000. Bears have been reported in all 55 counties. That creates a problem for DNR biologists who might seek to relocate nuisance animals.
"There is simply nowhere to move bears that have become a problem," Carpenter said.
Repeat offenders are dealt with harshly. Chris Ryan, the DNR's game management services supervisor, said the animals are usually killed before they can become a danger to the public.
West Virginia usually experiences an upturn in nuisance-bear complaints in late spring and early summer, the animals' peak breeding season.
Breeding causes bears to move about quite a bit. Males cover large areas looking for females. Female bears chase off their yearling offspring and prepare to breed again.
Roving bears need lots of food, and human-related food sources - trash, bird seed, uneaten pet foods, etc. - are often all too easy to find.
"All bears, especially yearlings that are on their own for the first time, will take advantage of easy food sources," Carpenter said.
When they do, they become nuisance bears. Every year, DNR officials field between 800 and 1,000 nuisance complaints. Not all the bears are killed; many are first-time offenders and are scared off with noisemakers or rubber shotgun slugs. Bears that ignore the warnings are the ones that must be killed.
Carpenter said a few simple precautions could prevent homeowners from becoming nuisance-bear magnets.
"Garbage should be secured in a bear-proof facility and placed out for collection on the morning of pickup, not the night before. Food scraps that produce large amounts of odor should be sealed in a plastic bag before being placed in the trash," he said.
"Food scraps should not be placed in a compost pile during the summer months. Residents should move all outside pet food in at night, and bird feeders should be taken down, cleaned and stored until fall to further discourage bears from feeding around human habitation.
"If you do not remove food attractants until after a bear has become a nuisance, you may have caused the death of that animal."
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1231.