A recent front page spread on a retired schoolteacher who feeds bears in the Yentna River Valley heralded him as a bear whisperer. Is he?
Sure, if you define a bear whisperer as someone who bribes bears to hang around his homestead and approach people for illegal handouts, and then is forced to protect his property with electric fences.
It is not difficult to teach bears that people are a source of easy meals. Food is a powerful tool for manipulating bear behavior. Bears must pack on as much weight as possible in summer to survive the winter, and if human handouts are available, many bears will gladly accept them.
But is it ultimately good for the bears? Most definitely not.
The "bear whisperer" admits his bear-love affliction compelled him to do wrong. That's an understatement. His actions are illegal and potentially destructive for both bears and humans.
It is important for people to recognize bears are not fierce killing machines intent on harming people as often portrayed in books and movies. But it is reckless to try to make them into "pets" by feeding them.
Bears that learn to rely on people for food can become dangerous. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game and the Alaska State Troopers ticket people for negligently or intentionally feeding bears garbage, birdseed or domestic animal feed.
When bears learn they can get food from people, they will continue to seek out humans and the places we live.
The "bear whisperer" says his bears know better than to demand food from humans, and return to acting like wild bears when they wander off his property. How does he know? The history of human-bear conflicts indicates otherwise.
Take Yellowstone National Park, for example. From the 1930s through the early 1970s, when feeding park bears was commonplace, bears would roam the park road looking for handouts. An average of 50 park visitors each year reported being injured by bears. In turn, park officials had to kill about 25 problem bears annually, according to a history of bear-feeding in Yellowstone by A.W. Biel.
When the feeding was eventually stopped, and dump sites were closed, both bears and humans had a rough readjustment. Conflicts didn't subside until the 1980s when garbage-dependent bears were replaced by self-sufficient bears that ate only wild foods. The park can now boast less than one bear-caused injury per year and only removes about one black and one grizzly bear every five years.
Had the Yentna bear feeding debacle occurred in a more populated area, the phone lines at ADF&G probably would have been ringing off the hook for years about "his" bears. The bears could well have gotten into garbage for miles around, eaten pets and livestock, broken into buildings and possibly even injured a few people.
His bear feeding hobby should have been stopped years ago. However, the remoteness of his homestead, combined with his denials and the reluctance of witnesses to tell what they knew about his feeding, have made enforcement difficult.
Eventually he will be forced to stop feeding bears. The bears won't like it, and some bears may need to be killed if problems arise. The important thing to remember, however, is that this mess all started with illegally feeding bears.
Matt Robus is the director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation in the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.