Bird feeders okay
until bears arrive

Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder



August 9, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson


I enjoyed the letter by J. L. Ashmore in last week's Pathfinder. He (or she) offered provocative thoughts in a concise fashion, as we would hope to do more often here on page 4, if for no other reason than to keep our readers on their toes.

To the point, then, Mr. Ashmore asks if we wildlife experts would clarify how we determine "which animals it is okay to feed and which are off limits." Although he credited another writer for his motivation, I would suggest that Mr. Ashmore could just as easily have been prompted to write after reading any of several of my columns about feeding, or not feeding, deer and bears in the past year or two.

Wildlife officials have been delivering a consistent message of late. Especially in rural areas, we're advising people to store garbage in bear-proof containers, keep dog food cleaned up, place birdseed out of reach, and avoid feeding deer or other furry wildlife altogether. Failure to do so can cause wild animals to abandon their natural foraging habits for a panhandling lifestyle. Once an animal makes this transition, there seems to be no going back. Especially in the case of bears, they often become bolder and more aggressive until they must be removed or killed. Sometimes, wardens or biologists remove numerous bears in an area before the problem is finally traced back to the source attractants in someone's backyard.

The message seems to be, "Don't feed wildlife!" But, show me a wildlife biologist without a bird feeder in his or her yard and I'll show you someone in the minority. So, as Mr. Ashmore asks, "Which animals is it okay to feed and which are off limits?"

I think we all know there's not a simple answer to this question, once you start scratching beneath the surface. Nevertheless, the issue is important enough for the Montana Legislature to have addressed it on more than one occasion, most recently with clarification signed into law by Governor Martz earlier this year:


A person may not provide supplemental feed attractants to game animals by: (a) purposely or knowingly attracting bears with supplemental feed attractants; (b) after having received a previous warning, negligently failing to properly store supplemental feed attractants and allowing bears access to the supplemental feed attractants; or (c) purposely or knowingly providing supplemental feed attractants in a manner that results in an artificial concentration of game animals that may potentially contribute to the transmission of disease or that constitutes a threat to public safety. 87-3-130, Montana Codes Annotated.


So, we do have some guidance in law to answer the question of when it's okay to feed and when it is not. Let's explore the bird-feeding question.

First, the law only speaks to the attraction of "game animals." So, this law does not prohibit bird-feeding.

However, we know that bird-feeding can attract bears, and the law addresses this when it prohibits the practice of "attracting bears with supplemental feed attractants" or "after having received a previous warning, negligently failing to properly store supplemental feed attractants and allowing bears access to the supplemental feed attractants."

I read this to mean that Montana law allows us to feed birds until we know we are attracting a bear in this manner, or until it is pointed out to us by an official of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP). At that point, we are required to stop feeding the birds in a manner that continues to attract a bear.

It is certainly fair to question whether bird-feeding is actually good for the birds. The answer is, not necessarily. But, there has been quite a bit of work done on the subject to help serious feeders avoid transmitting diseases to the birds that congregate at their feeders. I think society is telling us that people want to feed birds, and we need to find ways to do so responsibly.

Which brings us back to the secondary effects of bird-feeding on other animals, most notably bears. We can envision that bird-feeding is generally going to be less of a potential attractant to bears when it is done in areas that bears do not normally roam, such as in downtown Seeley Lake. As we move further into the more remote habitats that bears must continue to call home if we are to continue having bears, bird-feeding ranks as a higher risk for attracting them. That's when FWP advises that people take preventative actions to avoid problems, such as making the feeder and food inaccessible to bears, and scaling back on the number of feeders and amount of food provided.

In the end, I still managed to use as much space as ever to make one simple point. Society tells us that we can continue feeding birds as long as we don't attract bears. FWP asks that if you respect the bears in your area, or would like to continue getting along with your neighbors, take special precautions in your bird-feeding practices now to avoid problems in the future.