Protecting people and animals: Gila County Board of Supervisors bans feeding wildlife countywide

Contributed Photo: A new Gila County ordinance bans feeding of wildlife.

Contributed Article/Courtesy Carol Broeder

GILA COUNTY – It is and has been a human welfare and public safety issue for quite some time now.”

That’s how Wildlife Manager Field Supervisor Jarrod McFarlin, with Arizona Game and Fish, describes the intentional feeding of wildlife in the Pine-Strawberry area.

Such an issue, in fact, that at its Feb. 7 meeting, the Gila County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance designed to regulate wildlife feeding countywide.

During a Board of Supervisors meeting last year, concerned residents described increasing numbers of human/wildlife interactions in northern Gila County. Their comments lined up with data gathered by state Game and Fish, according to Gila County Health and Emergency Management Director Josh Beck.

Together, Gila County Animal Care and Control and Arizona Game and Fish thoroughly researched and discussed residents’ concerns. During an Oct. 25, 2022,work session, staff presented a draft wildlife feeding ordinance to the Board of Supervisors, who supported moving it forward.

“We’ve been a supporting agency in Gila County’s decision to move this ordinance forward,” McFarlin explains. “Being the wildlife agency for the state, we were able to provide some of the suggestions, language and data points while working with the county.”

The new ordinance repealed and replaced the county’s “Bear Ordinance” on the books since 2001, says Program Manager John Castaneda, with county Animal Care and Control.

Prior to that, bears were causing problems in the Portals area of Pine. “Residents were feeding and watering the bears, which they thought was helping them,” he explains. However, doing so caused many other animals—such as foxes, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, and bobcats–to come in and get a free meal and to water—in turn creating several other animal problems.

Contributed Photo: It is against the law in Gila County to feed wildlife.

“Domestic animals attacked by these wild animals ended up being put on a 180-day rabies exposure quarantine, which was very costly to the dog owner,” Castaneda says. “Some of these wild animals had to be trapped and relocated to other remote areas of Gila County.”

“Bears are opportunistic and can be quickly habituated to food sources, whether by deliberate feeding or carelessly being attracted to things such as garbage,” says McFarlin, adding that, clearly, the Board of Supervisors responded to similar public concerns with the 2001 ordinance. 

The major difference between the Bear Ordinance and the Wildlife Feeding Ordinance is that it encompasses all wildlife—not just bears.

The new ordinance covers “feeding all wildlife with exceptions for feeding birds from bird feeders and ranchers feeding their livestock,” Castaneda explains. “They both have the same purpose of keeping the wildlife routines natural to them.”

To some extent, Gila County’s Wildlife Feeding Ordinance mirrors existing state statute “while considering the public’s desire not to interfere with livestock operations, propagation of fruit trees and gardens and decorative water structures,” McFarlin explains. 

Having become habituated to food and humans, wildlife has inflicted serious injuries on people and pets, all because they lost their natural fear of humans.

Feeding bears in the Portals area of Pine caused a lot of problems 20 years ago, prompting the Bear Ordinance.

“People were getting charged by the bears,” says Castaneda, who personally worked one summer when eight complaints were received.

“Now, the elk are doing the same thing–some residents have been charged by elk;some hospitalized,” he explains. “In a couple of instances, elk have charged some children playing on a playground. These young kids could have been hurt very bad.”

McFarlin points out that feeding wildlife becomes not only a public safety issue, itputs the wildlife in harm’s way, as well. 

“Every year, in this state and others, officials must destroy wildlife that has attacked humans or have displayed unacceptably aggressive behavior,” he says.

McFarlin believes that the Board of Supervisors listened to the public, recognizing the need to do what’s in the best interest of the citizens, but the wildlife, as well. 

Gila County residents need to keep in mind that the new ordinance applies countywide, as wildlife can be found just about anywhere.

“While we continue pointing our fingers at elk, we’ve had deer attacks, javelina attacks and coyote attacks on pets in Gila County–all related to food attractants,” McFarlin explains. “All those species are also in southern Gila County.”

Game and Fish is currently working with Gila County on how to best implement the new ordinance. However, any animal control officer, sheriff’s deputy, or police officer has the authority to enforce it, which can include issuing a warning or citation, McFarlin says.

“We all need to work together which is, of course, what we do,” he says.

“One of the most important aspects in enforcement is an education component to ensure the citizens of Gila County are aware of the new ordinance, and why it is so important to people and wildlife,” McFarlin says.

Castaneda explains, “We’re going to start with a big education campaign, along with Game and Fish—plan community meetings; mail out information; go door-to-door delivering information and use our social media to get this information out.”

“Our collective goal is always voluntary compliance and enforcement action is always a last resort,” McFarlin explains.

Part of educating the public includes debunking some misconceptions.

Contributed Photo

McFarlin says there is some concern that Gila County residents will no longer see wildlife once the new ordinance is implemented. 

“That’s simply not true. We live in their world up here in Rim Country,” a habitat McFarlin calls perfect to support them on their own without good-natured citizens “helping them out.”

Castaneda adds, “A lot of people think that elk cannot get the feed they need from the wild, which is wrong. Our winters are not as harsh as other places across the country.”

“When it snows, snow is sometimes gone after a few days and elk will migrate,” he explains.

“There is plenty of feed and water sources outside of our communities and they have been here far longer than we have and will continue to be,” McFarlin says. “Keep wildlife wild and enjoy it from a distance.  Do not feed or attract wildlife because, in the end, we all lose.”