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Bear Basics with Bernadette: A ritual of survival

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Watching the World Series, it is easy to see each player has a ritual, looking up to the sky before pitching, loosening and tightening their batting gloves, rocking back and forth before the pitch comes in, a batting stance that defies odds of comfort. These rituals help each ballplayer focus on the job they need to do and helped bring them to the World Series.

If a baseball player gets their rituals practiced, it can mean all the difference in the outcome of the game. Beyond ritual and practice, there is also a strong amount of desire to do their best. The third baseman that dives and stretches, sliding across the dirt but misses a line drive doesn’t go home wishing he tried harder. Each of these three elements, ritual, practice and drive, determines how well they leave the game.

Bears also have their rituals, ones that move with the seasons and are driven by the need to acquire food. This time of year, their rituals get them ready for the winter and the denning season when they give birth. After the bears emerge from the dens in March, they begin the practice of slowly resetting their metabolic clock. These periods are critical for a bear’s survival and reproduction.

“What a female bear gains in food from den emergence in the spring to den entrance in the winter determines if she will produce young,” said Interagency Grizzly Bear Study team leader Frank van Manen. He added that, in order to reproduce, females generally need to have at least 20 percent body fat by the time they enter their winter den.

Grizzly bears and black bears undergo what is called delayed implantation. That means that after a female bear breeds in the spring, her fertilized eggs only develop to an early stage, called a blastocyst, which does not implant in the uterus until late fall. This is why the true period of pregnancy is only about eight to 10 weeks and why bear cubs are so small at birth, only a little over a pound. Females with more fat reserves tend to have cubs that are born earlier and grow faster compared with leaner females.

The ritual of the seasons was easy to see last year with some extreme weather patterns that shaped natural food availability. The hard winter led to significant losses of ungulates that contributed to an unusual level and welcomed food source when bears awoke from their dens. The wet spring and summer led to an abundance of grasses, berries and other natural foods. For the most part, in the lands around Yellowstone National Park, conflicts were down. In Big Sky, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear specialist Kevin Frey reports this was true as well, except for those bears that had received human food rewards and were already conditioned to trash—the abundance of natural foods made little difference for them.

To ensure bears are behaving naturally, the practice of ordering a bear-resistant trash can, securing the lid properly, keeping garage doors closed and closing house windows when you leave are some of the most important steps you can take to break the cycle of food conditioning bears.

It will take our willingness to start new rituals, that with practice and no shortage of drive to do the right thing—either for the bear, your property or your safety—will change the course of conflicts in Big Sky.

Do your part and become an actor in Big Sky’s movement toward making bear-smart actions a natural part of this mountain community’s culture.

Remember to follow Bernadette Bear on social media @bearsmartbigsky to learn how to make Big Sky’s story a positive one for bears, people and wild places.

Kris Inman manages the Partnerships and Engagement Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society and oversees the Bear Smart Big Sky campaign.

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