By Kris Inman
Explore Big Sky Contributor

Winter is around the corner and bears are gearing up for hibernation in southwest Montana. Fall is the most important time for bears to gain weight that will carry them through the winter denning season, and they can gain up to 35 percent of their body weight during this time. They are busy acquiring resources, are active longer each day, moving in response to seasonally available forage, and are more likely to come in contact with people.

Bears hibernate because they’re not well adapted for moving in deep snow. They have heavy bodies with small feet, unlike the snowshoe-like feet of lynx, wolverine and snowshoe hares. Food is less available and difficult to find in winter, and dens offer a secure place for birthing cubs. Bears generally give birth in January or February to an average of two cubs.

Bear cubs are born hairless, with their eyes closed, and weigh between 6 and 10 ounces. They need to gain weight quickly – as much as 10 times their body weight by the time they leave the den in mid-March to April. The energy cost of lactation is an added stress to female bears and is another reason why acquiring as much food in the fall is very important.

Grills, coolers, pet foods, birdfeeders, gardens and fruit trees are other major attractants for bears. When bears are in hyperphagia – or hyperactive appetite – they are likely to be found seeking food sources they normally wouldn’t, and are more likely to have negative encounters near human property.

If you live in bear habitat you need to be extra diligent about not attracting bears this time of year. This will keep you, your family, your property, and the bears safe. Trash is the No. 1 attractant so the easiest and least expensive solution is to secure your trash in bear-resistant containers. All dumpsters in Big Sky are bear resistant and curbside bear-resistant trash cans will be available in October from Republic Services. In West Yellowstone, all commercial dumpsters are required to bear resistant and bear resistant curbside trash cans are voluntary. In Bozeman, bear resistant dumpsters are not required and bear resistant curbside trash cans are voluntary. Contact Republic Services if you are interested in bear resistant trash can service.

Using these specialized trash cans is the first step to deterring bears, but using them correctly is equally important. Dumpsters and cans that are overflowing, are not latched properly, or are damaged are no longer bear resistant. As part of its service plan, Republic Services includes all repairs, replacements or adjustments to your service plan – including seasonal changes to service dates – free of charge.

If you live in Spanish Peaks Mountain Club, Big Sky Town Center or the Big Sky Owner’s Association you will be receiving a Kodiak Certified Bear-Resistant trash can this fall based on proactive homeowners association resolutions requiring their use. These cans will be available in mid fall and Republic Services will schedule a week in which they will pick up your old can and replace it with the new one.

If you don’t live in one of the HOAs that requires bear-resistant cans, you can voluntarily sign up for bear-resistant garbage service by contacting Republic Services or Dawn Smith at BSOA. Consider asking your HOA board to require bear-resistant trash can service and join in Big Sky’s Bear Smart strategy. Being a Bear Smart community will make a real difference in keeping you and your property safe, and avoiding the need to relocate or euthanize bears that become habituated to garbage.

Kris Inman is a wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and coordinates Bear Smart Big Sky. Contact her at (406) 682-3437 or kinman@wcs.org to learn more about the program. For more information about bear-resistant trash containers call Republic Services at (406) 586-0606.