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Bear Basics with Bernadette Bear: How trash can change hibernation

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By December, bears, for the most part, have entered their winter dens. It is a natural process for bears who are not physiologically adapted, like the lynx or the wolverine who have snowshoe-size feet that allow them to float across the snow. It is also a lean time for natural food.

Male bears or young female bears who will not need the security a den provides for newborn cubs are the last to den. But nature can also influence when bears den. On low snow years with an abundance of natural foods, bears may delay den entry.

People can shift this natural process for bears too. In communities like Big Sky, where a community abuts wild areas, bears with access to food were once “backcountry” bears eating natural foods but slowly become “frontcountry” bears.

These frontcountry bears, who have access to trash throughout the season, can shift not only their foraging behavior but the denning behavior too.

Too many states are seeing conflict calls in the winter months. In 2009, a great snow year for Nevada, the Nevada Department of Wildlife didn’t see conflict calls decline to zero, instead, during the winter, they had 41 percent fewer calls than in the summer and fall. Trash was the cause.

A colleague at the Wildlife Conservation Society, Jon Beckmann, along with other bear biologists studied this trend in behavior. They found that in 5 of 38 urban areas, where trash was available, bears never entered dens.

“In four more urban communities, bears denned under decks and appeared to key in on trash pick-up days, emerging from their dens to take advantage of this food source,” Beckmann said.

To ensure we don’t inadvertently make this shift in denning behavior for Big Sky’s bears, Beckmann suggests one key thing: “Use bear-resistant trash cans throughout the year, even when bears are in their dens.”

If shifting denning behavior is not reason enough to keep trash from bears, do it to make it a practiced behavior so you won’t be caught unaware when bears emerge from their dens in the spring.

For those that rent your home as a vacation rental, be sure the vacationers you are hosting are aware they need to keep trash secured. This fall, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks received calls from vacation renters. “Unaware that bears are around, they stored their garbage in bags on the deck and had an unwelcomed visitor,” FWP bear biologist Kevin Frey said.

As snow flies, this certainly is the time of merriment—your family, business and vacation renters will produce a lot of trash that needs to be stored away from bears. Keep extra trash in the garage with the door always closed.

Keep your property, bears and yourself safe by breaking the cycle of rewarding bears with trash. Ask L&L Site Services or Republic Services for a bear-resistant trash can. Use it all year long and make bear smart practices a natural part of this community’s culture so we keep Big Sky wild.

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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