For human beings, the end of summer can mean squeezing in a few last trips to the beach or mountains before school begins and the pace of work picks up. But for bears, the end of summer is a vital life stage; it’s when they start a feeding frenzy called “hyperphagia,” which involves seeking food and eating for up to 20 hours per day.
To prepare for a healthy hibernation, bears must consume about 20,000 calories and gain three to five pounds every day just to survive winter in the den. Because bears hibernate in their dens for three to six months they risk starvation—and for adult females, the opportunity to produce cubs—if they don’t amply chow down now.
Human-bear encounters are more frequent during the hyperphagia stage of their seasonal cycle when bears can stray into contact with humans in their frenzied search for nourishment.
Here’s how you can help protect bears during this extraordinary time.
1. Understand the meaning of the feeding frenzy
Gaining enough weight in late summer and autumn is critical for all bears, but female bears carry an even more urgent pressure: Future generations of bears depend on pregnant bears finding enough food before hibernating. Bears live a long time (up to 25 years in the wild or more) and are slow to reproduce. If a pregnant female does not put on sufficient weight, she won’t give birth and will actually reabsorb her embryos. But if a female gains enough fat, she will produce a small litter of cubs in late winter. The cubs will feed on fat-rich milk and emerge from the den with their mother in early spring.
Generally, bears get most of their calories (90%) from plants. Black bears have only a handful of months when their foods are available, and the foods they generally rely upon are nuts, like pine nuts, white bark pine seeds, beechnuts, walnuts and acorns, and a variety of berries. Bears also fish, consume colonial insects (like bees and ants) and scavenge animal carcasses. Black bears have an excellent sense of smell that helps them find their food.
The amount of available food also helps bear populations self-regulate, so they don’t overpopulate in areas where the food sources cannot support them. When humans aren’t aware of bear hyperphagia, they may be doing things to disrupt this delicate balance and cause human-wildlife conflict, which, sadly, always ends badly for the bears.
2. Become a bear-aware citizen
In a video recently posted on social media, a young black bear, later dubbed Bear 211 (the number pinned to both ears by the state of Connecticut), literally pours birdseed into his mouth from a low-hanging bird feeder. Bear 211 garnered thousands of Facebook followers because of his clever and cute antics, which also included napping in a hammock and cruising down a kid’s slide.
While his feeding behavior was both ingenious and adorable, it’s a sad fact that the lure of food attractants in human neighborhoods led to his death last week. Wildlife managers euthanized him after he was struck by a vehicle and suffered grave injuries in a suburban neighborhood.
For bears to safely thrive, we all must do our part, and it’s imperative that we reduce food attractants available to bears:
- Never feed or approach bears. Period.
- In residential areas, don’t feed birds while bears are active.
- Keep garbage, pet foods, compost and recycling inaccessible to bears in sheds, garages or bear-resistant trash cans.
- Freeze smelly garbage and put it out with trash on the morning of pick up.
- While camping, use food storage boxes at campgrounds, or suspended 10 feet from the ground (away from a tree trunk), and clean up cooking areas thoroughly. Don’t cook in the same area where you sleep.
- On farms, use sheds or pens secured by electric fencing to avoid attracting bears, while keeping chickens, lambs, calves and bees safe.
It’s also important to slow down when driving in areas where bears are located. Bears die after being struck by vehicles in suburban neighborhoods, like Bear 211, or in national parks, like a small cub recently killed by a vehicle in Yosemite.
Our fascination with bears becomes fraught with danger for them when they come into contact with us. This is something to keep in mind when posting pictures and videos of bear sightings on social media.
3. Help create a bear-aware society
We believe that everyone stands to benefit from an increased understanding of the lives of bears and their roles in our ecosystems. Not only are bears highly sentient creatures who bond closely with their families, but they also play an important role in their forest ecosystems. They spread more seeds than birds, helping to keep the flora of the forest healthy. They break tree branches, which helps to open the canopy, allowing more sun to filter to the forest floor and thus enriching the plant diversity. They break logs apart while searching for grubs, helping with the decomposition process and facilitating the return of nutrients to the soil. Bear activity may even aid gray foxes, decreasing competition for the foods the foxes seek out and keeping animals who prey on foxes at bay.
Because bears are also slow to reproduce, it becomes even more important to take measures to protect them. Biologists say that local bear populations can only withstand a loss of between 4% and 10% of their population each year before putting their survival in serious jeopardy.
Greater bear awareness plays an important role in our efforts to defend bears from threats like trophy hunting and bear baiting. Sadly, many wildlife managers use the excuse of human and bear conflicts as a reason to kill bears. Some hunters use the especially cruel practice of bear baiting to lure them out for close-range shooting. They put out fatty foods, like pastries rich in sugars, that can be toxic to bears and other wildlife, but are irresistible to a bear desperate to store up enough calories for the winter. However, trophy hunting bears in any form does not reduce conflicts, nor does it make us any safer.
The killing of bears for trophies, through baiting, hounding or trapping, is cruel, unnecessary and a substantial lethal threat to bear populations in North America, and while only a few people participate in such killing, we can all help mitigate human-bear interactions. We should respect bears, give them their space, and minimize the chances for conflict in our own daily routines—especially because these cases of avoidable conflict are often used to justify the trophy hunting of bears and other top carnivores. Bears deserve better, and bear awareness is an important way we can support them in our own lives.
Follow Kitty Block on Twitter @HSUSKittyBlock.