Photograph by Michael Nichols, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A bear at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center outside Yellowstone tests a bear-proof garbage container—important for making sure bears don't get too comfortable coming to town to eat.

Photograph by Michael Nichols, Nat Geo Image Collection

Why feeding bears is worse than you might think

Giving food to bears, or carelessly leaving out pet food and garbage, not only endangers you—but could doom the animals.

Sow 101, a grizzly bear, has had a long and productive life. In her first 20 years, she ranged between Yellowstone National Park and the wild lands outside West Yellowstone, Montana, raising somewhere between three and four sets of cubs. She was the 101st grizzly to get a GPS collar as part of a National Park Service study—hence her name.

But then, in the early ‘90s, she began eating garbage and pet food that had been carelessly left out by residents in a suburb north of town. Because of the risk of conflict with humans, wildlife officials relocated her deeper into the park. There she happily remained—for a while.

Ten years later, however, there was a drought in Yellowstone, and food became scarce. Sow 101 sought out the place she’d come to learn, a decade earlier, had reliable food: the suburbs. So Sow 101 and her two cubs began eating people’s garbage and pet food once again.

After repeatedly returning to the same houses to forage, wildlife officials decided she needed to be removed from the wild entirely. She and her two cubs posed too much of a danger to humans, says Trent Redfield, with the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, an educational wildlife facility that shelters human-acclimated bears and other wildlife, located just outside Yellowstone. (Read more: How can we learn to let the wild be wild in Yellowstone?)

Sow 101 now lives at the discovery center and is 37 years old—much older than the median lifespan of female grizzlies in captivity. Her two cubs lived for a while at the center, but they were later moved to Washington State University because the facility didn’t have enough space for two full-grown animals.

Sow’s removal from the wild could’ve been avoided, but in a way, she—and the humans in the suburbs—were lucky. When bears and other predators are repeatedly drawn to human settlements, they can become bold around humans, especially when they come to equate them with food. That puts humans at risk. If the bears can’t be relocated or taught to avoid the area and human food, they may be taken into captivity, like Sow—or even killed, if they become aggressive or destructive.

With protective grizzly bear mothers, the risk is even greater. “With a mother with two cubs, things could’ve gone really badly,” Redfield says. “If people are careless with their food and garbage, that’s where we get situations where bears are hurt and [people’s] property [is] destroyed, and that may ultimately lead to the bears being killed as well.”

Finding food

On this bright morning at the center, a young male bear named Coram bounds around his large enclosure, pulling out rocks where foods has been hidden, his brown coat showing a sheen of silver in a certain light. He came to the center after three relocation attempts failed to keep him away from food left out by homeowners in the town of Coram, Montana, his namesake.

“He took groceries out of somebody’s pickup truck when they got home from the store,” Redfield says, and ran off with a loaf of bread. “At that point, being that bold in human areas is going to lead to conflict.” (Learn how not to get attacked by a bear.)

A brief history of Yellowstone National Park Here’s the story of how America got its first national park.

At the center, Coram and two other younger males, Grant and Roosevelt, sniff intently at the rocks before intermittently wrestling. But mainly, the huge bears seem intent on finding something to eat—an instinct that drives much of their behavior: Last night, as part of National Geographic Channel’s Yellowstone Live, the center did a live demonstration to show the lengths the bears will go to get a meal.

Caretakers placed three coolers with food inside within the center’s bear enclosure, under a blanket on the bed of a truck. Coram and Grant quickly smelled the food and ripped into two of the coolers. Grant bounded off with a trout, while the third, locked bear-proof cooler remained unscathed.

As easily as bears can learn to equate humans with food, they can also learn that human food is more work than it’s worth, according to Rae Wynn-Grant, a large carnivore ecologist and National Geographic explorer. She says bears’ feeding behavior is an illustration of optimal foraging strategy, whereby animals exert the minimum effort necessary to acquire the maximum amount of calories. Because human food is often calorie-dense, if the animals get access to it, they can quickly learn to prefer it, she says.

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Grizzly bears wrestle at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, which takes in bears that have become too comfortable around humans or otherwise couldn't survive in the wild.

However, bear-proof coolers and garbage cans, for example, can teach bears that it’s not worth the effort. “If they try over and over to open the can but can’t, they’ll stop trying and hopefully go back to a natural food source,” she says. More aggressive tactics include setting off firecrackers near bears, chasing them away with specially trained dogs, or shooting them with nonlethal rubber bullets.

Sam’s story

It’s not just carelessness that puts bears at risk—intentionally feeding them can also cause major problems. Such was the case for another bear named Sam, who came to the center in 1996. At six months old, he lived near Katmai National Park, in Alaska. After his mom died, he found his way to a town called King Salmon, where people began feeding the skinny, 50-pound cub out of pity, Redfield says.

Cubs, however, don’t stay cubs for long. “Sam is now over 1,000 pounds,” Redfield says. A bear like that coming into human areas—that could be really dangerous, he adds. After repeatedly returning to the town for food, Alaska state wildlife officials made the decision to move him to a captive environment.

The stories like Sow’s, Coram’s, and Sam’s show the repercussions of feeding the animals. Normally, bears “go out of their way to avoid people,” Redfield explains, and don’t come into human areas unless there are attractants. But the price of carelessness—or intentional feeding—can be deadly. Some facilities such as the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, can provide homes to these animals, but not all bears are that fortunate.

Besides bear-proof garbage cans, Redfield suggests that people keep pet food inside and take care to make sure bird feeders are secure. Basically, just prevent bears from getting access to anything edible, he says.

“That can ultimately protect you yourself, your neighbors, and keep bears healthy and wild,” he adds.