Trash-eating bears have shorter lifespans

Column by Christie Greene
Posted 4/26/21

If you are a “Stardew Valley” farmer, there are serious reasons why you want to be tucked into bed before the clock strikes 2 a.m. The late-working little farmers are assessed big fines and …

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Trash-eating bears have shorter lifespans

Posted

If you are a “Stardew Valley” farmer, there are serious reasons why you want to be tucked into bed before the clock strikes 2 a.m. The late-working little farmers are assessed big fines and worse, and receive scolding letters from the mayor in their mailboxes the following morning.

For real people, not allowing daily time for the body to heal and rejuvenate will eventually result in health complications such as memory loss and reduced cognitive capability.

Bears need their sleep as well, but counted in terms of months rather than hours. A six-year study led by Colorado Parks and Wildlife revealed that bears who don’t get the benefit of a full hibernation cycle have adverse outcomes in the form of physiological and human-related threats.

In 2011, biologists distributed 1,100 bear-resistant trash cans to homes and businesses in the Durango, Colorado, area. After fitting 600 bears with radio collars, biologists monitored how the bears interacted with the resistant containers and other bear-proofing measures. Study results, published in 2017, revealed that the bear-resistant trash cans reduced bear-human conflicts by a remarkable 50%.

But for bears that successfully dine on human-provided calories like birdseed and trash, the effect on their fitness and survival is concerning.Very simply stated, human-fed bears had shorter hibernation periods, and that’s not a good thing.

The study’s lead researcher Heather Johnson, a biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, states, “Hibernation represents a time of repair and recovery for many animals. It allows them to survive periods of food shortage and harsh environmental conditions. Hibernation is an adaptation to deal with seasonal food limitation, but if a bear still has food available, it doesn’t necessarily need to hibernate.”

The Durango bear study found that shortened hibernation time has several adverse effects that can influence a bear population’s long-term viability.

Increased exposure to human-related risks like falling victim to wildlife-vehicle collisions or breaking into homes is likely when bears spend more time each year roaming instead of snoozing. Bears that are able to seek food near homes and restaurants can lose their fear of humans and can become increasingly aggressive. When bears cross the line from being an annoyance to being dangerous, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers may intervene to protect public safety.

Shorter hibernations can result in overall decreased wellness for bears, meaning fewer cubs are born, and populations could decline. As an apex predator, a bear’s removal would have a widespread, deleterious effect on the ecosystem.

Less time in the den leads to increased cellular aging or senescence. When a bear cannot hibernate long enough to allow recovery and repair of DNA strands, resulting damage to the strands leads to a shortened lifespan for the animal.

More troubling is the trend toward even shorter hibernations.

Johnson says, “Our models project that by 2050, bears on average will hibernate for about 15 to 40 days less than they do right now. That has big implications for bear-human conflicts because if bears hibernate for several weeks less each year, that’s a lot more time they can interact with people.”

Respecting and valuing neighborhood bears equates to removing all sources of human food from bear access, including trash and birdseed. By modeling wildlife-friendly behavior and sharing knowledge with neighbors, we can help bears live a wilder, safer life.

• Contact Evergreen’s new bear awareness program at BearAwareEvergreen@gmail.com

• Colorado Parks and Wildlife: cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/LivingwithWildlife.aspx

• Durango’s BearSmart program: bearsmartdurango.org

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