Feeding wildlife can be dangerous and bad for the environment.

by Paul White

When driving through the mountains of Romania it's not uncommon to see bears hanging around next to roads. Why? Because many drivers stop their cars to feed them, often taking 'selfies' at the same time as the bear is consuming their sandwich in the background. Whilst feeding bears in Romania is strictly illegal there's not always a policeman watching to enforce the law.



My question relating to the video above is - Why do people feed bears when the forest is full of natural food? I don't have the answer but maybe this question needs exploring?

What we do know is that feeding bears causes problems. They start hanging around those places where they know that they can find more food e.g roads, buildings, gardens, campsites and refuse sites. They soon lose their fear of humans and become ever more daring in their quest for a 'free lunch'. When bears start breaking into cars, buildings and tents the dangers to humans obviously increases. This is where the term "A fed bear is a dead bear" comes from, because these more daring bears are eventually destroyed. 

There are other potential problems associated with feeding bears, such as behavioural changes and health issues. (ScienceNews.org "Bears that eat ‘junk food’ may hibernate less and age faster" By Susan Milius, 04.03.2019)

We have established that feeding bears is both wrong, unethical and illegal, because it leads to dangerous conflicts between bears and humans. We also know that feeding bears with human food can potentially lead to health issues. But there's even more. One of the most important ecological functions that a bear performs is seed dispersal throughout the forest in their scat, which helps maintain forest regeneration and healthy ecosystems. 

Seed dispersal is an important function of many small mammals and birds, so is feeding unnatural food and habituating wildlife in our back gardens having a negative impact on the natural environment?

I recently discussed this in more detail with John Masson, CEO at the Local Biodiversity Council which was began from his following statement:-

"Feeding any species of wildlife unplugs them from their ecological roles, which are crucial to driving functional ecosystems".

Paul: Why is it not good to feed wildlife in general? I find this a fascinating subject, as a whole industry has been built up around feeding wild mammals and birds in peoples backyards and gardens.

John: The best way I can respond to your question is based on my own local biodiversity restoration experience which was the result of working in formal conservation. I was extremely fortunate to have worked within biomes fully represented of all the trophic tiers, which happened to include a broad spectrum of mega fauna.

Consequently I've always taken a holistic approach with flora and fauna species management when addressing biodiversity restoration, be it in an urban or wilderness setting.

Personally I believe there are a number of factors, some of which are subjective that are contributing towards the mismanagement of urban wildlife, resulting in biodiversity demise in cities and their surrounding landscapes.

So to pick up with your question concerning birds. They can play a vitally important role in urban local biodiversity restoration, if they are included in the process of establishing ecological succession. However, they then need to be understood and valued as being wildlife evolved to exist and function as critically important components within ecosystems.

For example, fruit eating birds help with the dispersal of plant species. They perform this function by prepping seeds for germination as they pass through their guts, which are then encased with fertilised nutrients embedded amongst the droppings, which very often fall within suitable colonisation habitats. Annual vegetation assessments on our sites have recorded an increase in plant specie diversity and rate of ecological succession due to the role the fruit eaters perform. Since vegetation communities are foundational to most terrestrial fauna species, it highlights the crucial role these species perform in accelerating the overall biodiversity targets for all bird and other local biodiversity fauna species.

However extenuating circumstances must be taken into consideration as in the case of vulture restaurants". "The nesting and roosting colonies of Cape Vulture within southern Africa's Afro Alpine environments have suffered a dramatic reduction to their lowland grassland and savannah biomes, the primary natural feeding grounds within their home range, is the reason for the food supplementation intervention. 

Tragically climate heating and habitat destruction is resulting in biome collapse driving many similar scenarios, polar bear, a specialist habitat specific species being the most obvious. At the current rate of permanent ice melt, they could soon be functionally extinct, dependent on feeding stations for their existence within a biome crashed landscape. 

However let's not just give into the drivers of biome collapse, but rather counter these causes by us working on restoring the functions of species within the food chains by regenerating the ecosystems that make up our biomes". 

Paul: That's a good and concise reply John and I couldn't agree with you more. All creatures have evolved over tens of thousands of years leading to a specific niche within the bigger picture of nature and environment, only to be "unplugged" from these roles with supplementary human feeding in the last few decades. I think this is a symptom of just how detached from nature we have become.

John: In conclusion the primary objective with local biodiversity regeneration/restoration is to establish the characteristic species of a specific natural landscape in the same densities and ratios as they would have naturally occurred (one obviously has to take into consideration the urban context) as an ecologically self sustainable system. Consequently the measure of successful biodiversity restoration is ecological self sustainability, in which all the species are able to exist within the constraints of the inherent ecological limitations. So if we are to address the impacts of biodiversity loss and regenerate ecological capital in the anthropogenic landscape, we will need to unhinge the full scope of benefits ecosystems provide in driving a self sustaining Blue Green Planet. 

End of discussion.