Marguerite Sprague: Hungry as a bear
The bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain, to eat what he could eat!
— Modified traditional
Bears are a perennial hot topic in the Tahoe basin. Some people love ‘em, some hate ‘em, but love ‘em or hate ‘em, at this time of year you need to be aware of how the season affects our ursine neighbors. In the fall their appetite — already a major driving force — ramps way up as they fatten up for hibernation. This phenomenon/state is called “hyperphagia” by biologists. Bears become even more determined to get at food, whether it be bugs and plants or human food and trash.
Bears are omnivores with a heavy vegetarian bent. Left to their own devices in a natural setting, plants make up 75% of bears’ diet, but they are not picky eaters and will, as “omnivore” defines, eat anything. As retired State Parks Ranger Brian Barton once observed, they ask one question about everything they encounter: “Can I eat it?”
Bears’ ongoing quest for calories — especially in hyperphagia — makes them less concerned about flavor and more concerned about bulk. Human garbage and food give them more calories with less work compared to foraging for natural food sources. At the same time, in a good berry year, when the berries ripen, bears may leave human garbage behind to gorge on them.
During fall in undeveloped areas, bears focus on forest tree nuts, but in developed areas they can become a greater nuisance for humans because they become more determined to get at garbage and food. Once again, when human food is easily gotten it’s a lot less work to bulk up quickly, and they bulk up impressively for hibernation.
In the warm months, bears need about 2,500 daily calories, but by late summer/early fall, they’re foraging almost constantly, trying to eat 20,000 daily calories to gain three to five pounds each day. One tracked Pennsylvania bear weighed 348 pounds in midsummer but two months later was 476 pounds. A 132 pound gain over two months takes a lot of food!
A fun fact: bears’ noses are amazingly sensitive! They have 100 times the membranes our noses have: more than a bloodhound’s. Some researchers claim bears can detect scents — especially food — more than a mile away. They can smell scents that our noses can’t, including old hamburger wrappers that we no longer smell under the car seat: the bears still smell them, and they think they smell really good.
Not so fun fact: not everything a bear eats is actually food. If it smells plausible, he’ll give it a try. This means strawberry air fresheners, cocoa butter lip balm, 3-week-old hamburger wrappers under the passenger seat of your car — you name it. This makes unhealthy bears.
All this means we people have got to step up our game when it comes to storing our food and trash. If a bear thinks it’s edible, it will do whatever it can to get at it, from opening car doors to opening houses. They’re really just doing what they always do: getting at bugs requires them to tear apart trees, so tearing open a window or car to get at food seems perfectly normal in a bear’s world.
It’s easy to sympathize with these hungry bruins, but the worst thing you can do is feed a bear, either accidentally or on purpose. Fed bears become accustomed to human food very quickly and get too comfortable being around people. This is a death sentence for a bear. Bears that get in the habit of seeking human food usually end up damaging people’s property and frightening or angering people, who contact authorities. The only thing the authorities can do is trap and kill the bear. A fed bear really is a dead bear.
This fall, it’s up to you and me to keep our food and trash away from bears. Need more information about how to do this? Check out the BearWise website at https://bearwise.org/bear-safety-tips/, and our local Bear League’s list of helpful hints at http://www.savebears.org/info/tips_bearproof1.pdf .
Marguerite Sprague is a resident of Tahoe City.
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