‘Worst thing you could do.’ Bear feeding on Kentucky mountain highways leads to extra patrols

Kentucky Fish and Wildlife officials say that feeding bears can cause them to exhibit behavior that could be dangerous to humans and the bears themselves.
Kentucky Fish and Wildlife officials say that feeding bears can cause them to exhibit behavior that could be dangerous to humans and the bears themselves. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife

More drivers in Eastern Kentucky are feeding bears they see on the roadside, and according to the state’s bear experts, that’s the “absolute worst thing you could do.”

“A fed bear is a dead bear,” said John Hast, the Bear Program Coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. Hast said that feeding wild bears desensitizes them to human contact and conditions them to human food. Bold bears hungry for man-made products may exhibit behavior that could be dangerous to people and to the bear itself.

According to Hast, more than 400 bears live in Kentucky, most of which are centered in the far southeastern counties. The state has had to recently increase the presence of law enforcement and biologists around Ky. 160 on Black Mountain and on U.S. 119 near Pine Mountain because of a prevalence of bear feeding in both areas. Both locations have been issues in the past, but Hast said bear feeding has been especially prevalent this summer.

Jonathan Shelton of Harlan County was nearly injured by a bear that lunged at him with an open mouth when he opened a vehicle door on a road on Black Mountain and asked twice “want some food” while holding out his hand, according to WYMT, which included a video of the incident with a report Thursday. Shelton told the station that he’d stopped to film the encounter to show how bears on the mountain are becoming more comfortable with humans because of the prevalent bear feeding.

Bear feeding is illegal in Kentucky. Those caught feeding bears can face a $1,000 fine or up to a year in jail, the department’s website said.

“We’re not looking to bust people,” Hast said of the bear feeding that often occurs on windy mountain roads. “But we’re looking for it to stop.”

Hast described a Facebook video he recently saw that included a food-conditioned bear rushing at a car — hoping for a handout.

“The bear’s ambling down the street and really almost like a snake striking, he’s up on the passenger’s window,” Hast said. “...That’s just behavior we can’t tolerate.”

Bears that are not afraid of approaching humans usually live significantly shorter lives as they are often killed by poachers, struck by vehicles or they have to be euthanized because of the possibility that they may come into conflict with humans, the department’s website said. For Hast that’s “really the crappy part of the job.”

It’s very hard to change the behavior of a handout-hungry bear that approaches roads, cars and humans, Hast said.

Department officials will sometimes try to scare a bear away from approaching people by “hazing” it, Hast said, which often includes shooting a sort of firecracker at bears that hang out too long on the side of the highway. But when hazing fails, the bear has to be euthanized.

On average, the department euthanizes five bears in a year, Hast said. This year, the department has only had to euthanize one.

Kentucky’s bear population was virtually zero for much of the 20th Century after constant logging and hunting in Appalachian forests depleted the populations, the department’s website said. But the forests regrew and matured and over the past few decades, Kentucky’s black bear population has grown significantly. Those wishing to observe the bears, should do so from a distance, Hast said.

“Don’t try to get that selfie with them,” Hast said.

If you see someone feeding a bear, report it to 1-800-25-ALERT.