Help bears by locking trash
August 21, 2007
(Editor’s note: Our regular Thursday columnist Andy Stone is on vacation this week.)I submitted a similar letter to your newspaper in 2000 in response to letters requesting “feeding stations” for black bears. It is quite depressing that despite the tremendous efforts of Kevin Wright and other Colorado Division of Wildlife personnel, little has changed in seven years.There has been much talk in the community about feeding bears over the last several weeks. As a professional wildlife ecologist, it is my opinion that feeding the black bears of the Roaring Fork watershed will only exacerbate a bad situation. One can certainly understand that a compassionate person would feel sympathy for bears that have suffered from the lack of natural foods this year. It is important to remember, however, that fluctuations in wildlife populations are not only a natural occurrence but a necessary one.Food supplies for wild animals are highly variable and largely dependent upon weather to determine whether it will be feast or famine. As the population size for a given species grows there is greater demand for limited food supplies. As long as the weather, specifically the timing and quantities of precipitation (e.g., summer thunderstorm cycles that come too late in the season) and cold (e.g., late frosts that kill the flowers of berry-producing shrubs), is favorable, the habitat of a given species may support large populations. If, however, the weather takes a turn for the worse in terms of its effect on food supplies, then the most fit individuals in a population are most likely to survive and reproduce whereas the weaker individuals (e.g., yearlings, the old, the subdominant) will perish. This is just the way it is, and intervening in natural (i.e., resulting from nonhuman events) will result in skewed demographics that weaken the population as a whole.There are four physiological phases in the annual cycle of black bears, closely tied to nutritional needs: hibernation, walking hibernation, normal activity, and hyperphagia or gorging. Black bears ordinarily lose 20 to 27 percent of their body weight during hibernation. Energy is supplied from fat storage. The walking hibernation lasts for at least two weeks following emergence from the hibernation den. At that time, black bears are not likely to feed or drink much at all. The hyperphagic phase is characterized by 16- to 20-hour-a-day gorging during late summer and fall with preferences shown for foods high in fat, sugar and starch. Larger bears need as much as 20,000 calories a day to survive hibernation!Consequently, it is our willingness to provide an alternative, inferior food source that is drawing bears into close contact with people. The first simple step that must be taken is bear-safe trash storage. It’s not difficult – if you are not willing or cannot afford to buy bearproof trash containers then simply keep your trash indoors between April and early November until the morning of pickup.Given the late frosts of this spring that decimated the acorn and serviceberry crops, and the summer drought, many bears of the Roaring Fork watershed and western Colorado are quite thin as we approach winter. It is likely that some cubs from this year and younger or subdominant adults will not make it through the winter since they will not have enough fat. In addition, female bears delay the implantation of embryos until they are in the den and pregnancy will only occur if the mother has enough fat for both herself and her offspring. This way, the female increases the probability of her own survival. In a year such as this, only the fittest females will bear young. The net result of these events and black bear biology in a poor food year will be a healthy reduction in the black bear population of the Roaring Fork watershed. Hopefully, this will give us an opportunity to realize the necessity of proper trash management and learn to share the habitat of the American black bear.The life of wild animals is not easy, and most die very difficult painful deaths, usually from predation, disease or starvation. Sympathy for the bear’s fate is admirable, but intervention would likely cause more harm than good. It is essential that the entire community accept that we have bears in our midst and prevent them from accessing our waste, bird feed, dog food or any other source of food associated with human habitation. Once that attractant has been completely eliminated for a few years, we will likely see a marked decrease in black bearhuman conflicts.The personnel of the Colorado DOW chose their profession due to their love of wildlife. Please help them by becoming bear-aware – lock away your trash and eliminate other bear attractants around your home. Please.Jonathan Lowsky is the principal ecologist/wildlife biologist for Colorado Wildlife Science LLC, a ecological research, services and consulting company. He is also a resident of Basalt.
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