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A bear's gotta eat

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mikeleahy | Nov 08, 2010 12:00 AM

For the six months or so of the year that grizzly bears are active, they have one thing on their mind: food. And they need lots of it.

To survive the long winter months of hibernation, a four- to six-hundred-pound adult grizzly bear must be constantly eating whenever it has the chance, a process known as hyperphagia. Grizzlies are omnivores and will eat a wide variety of both plants and animals just to stay alive. If salmon or elk aren’t on the menu that day, they’ll settle for any number of wild berries, insects or grasses depending on what’s in season. Thus they fight hunger with an indiscriminate appetite.

The grizzly’s omnivorism greatly improves the animal’s chances of finding enough food, but it means that a smelly trash can or a coop of backyard chickens can offer an irresistible snack. It also means that when natural food sources become scarce and important foraging habitat is lost, grizzlies will push farther into human territory in search of their next meal.

Grizzly Bear in Montana

Photo of grizzly bear courtesy Flickr user Dan Dzurisin

That was all-too apparent this year--a particularly tough one for the voracious grizzly. He spent a lot of time in the media spotlight, but for all the wrong reasons (the two human deaths being the most tragic encounters but fortunately also an extremely rare event). Grizzlies were busy eating chickens, dumpster-diving, and even eating Fido’s dogfood on the back porch.

There are several reasons for this. In Montana, native berries such as serviceberry, chokecherry, hawthorn and huckleberry – critical to a bear’s ability to store fat for winter – have been scarce this year. Meanwhile, grizzly bear populations in the area are slowly increasing, and humans are moving ever further into bear habitats, dotting formerly open lands with roads, subdivisions, livestock yards and other human constructions. This commonly leads to a summer cabin or community subdivision where green grass (a bear favorite), garbage cans, chicken coops, birdfeeders, pets and livestock abound.

The result is two opposing forces bringing bears and people into conflict. Lack of food and a growing bear population send grizzlies searching far and wide, while new developments and growing human populations (with all their tantalizing bear bait) limit the number of places that bears can go safely searching.

But these increased conflicts may reflect human negligence more than bad bear behavior. Raising chickens in the backyard can be a great way to bring some local protein into your diet, but it might also seem like an open invitation to a hungry bear. Likewise, leaving bird seed or dog food outside is going to attract more wildlife than bargained for.

So are these kinds of conflicts between bears and humans inevitable? We’re working to make sure they are not.  Those chickens need to be behind an electric fence. Bear-resistant garbage cans keep animals from picking through your food scraps, birdfeeders should be taken down from spring to fall when wild seeds are abundant, and dog food should always be stored inside. Defenders of Wildlife’s brochure, Living in Bear Country (pdf), offers additional tips for reducing conflicts between bears and people.

Other projects are taking an innovative approach to reducing bear attractants before they become problematic. The Great Bear Foundation, for example, has implemented a fruit gleaning project around Missoula, Mont. to remove ripe apples from trees. The group has volunteers that collect apples as they start to ripen, press them into cider, and sell the cider, returning some of the profits to the tree owners. Cities are taking action as well, requiring residents to keep their trash cans locked up until the day of trash pick-up, reducing the amount of time bears can get at them.

Grizzly bears have started to make a comeback in recent years, repopulating some of their historic range in the lower 48 states. Historically, there were 50,000 grizzlies in North America from Alaska to Mexico and California to Ohio, with many roaming across the Great Plains. Nearly extirpated from the lower 48 a century ago, the grizzly population has rebounded to an estimated 1,400 individuals over the last three decades of recovery. Now, their continued survival rests in our hands.

Being a bear isn’t easy and neither is living with them. Bears will eat just about anything when given the chance, so it’s our job to make sure they’re not picking through our scraps. Bears belong in the wild, but they need our help to make sure they can stay there.

(Curious about how to tell the difference between grizzly bears and black bears? Check out this video.)

Mike Leahy is director of conservation programs in the Rocky Mountain region for Defenders of Wildlife in Bozeman, Montana.

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