Published April 11, 2010
Bears eat, sleep to the extremeTHE OLYMPIAN
Ever been hungry as a bear? While the idiom speaks to hungry humans, it's not close. How hungry would you be after not eating for five months? Gobbling down the highest-calorie food won't help, either. “Bears have evolved to hibernate over the years. In Washington, that averages five months with no food, no drink, no urination and no defecation,” said Chris Morgan, founder and co-director of the Grizzly Bear Outreach and knowledgeable about the smaller black bears. “What’s really important is how they went into hibernation. Last year was a very good berry crop, blueberries and huckleberries. “That’s important for how they came out of the den and for the survival of the cubs. This year, they’re faring better than average because of the good berry season.” Black bears are out of their dens a little early this year, possibly because of the warmer-than-usual weather. Morgan said. And they’re hungry. “There are no berries now but they went in fat and they’ve come out less desperate.” Now they’re feeding on sedge, which is high in protein; horsetails, a favorite; and skunk cabbage. Because they’re so hungry, some might dine at your house. “Think of a dog. If he’s begging at the dinner table, and you feed him, he’ll be back begging,” Morgan said. If you have grease on the BBQ grill, meat or fish in your garbage can, and black-oil sunflowers in your feeders, you’re not helping bear-human interaction. Does hunger translate into aggressiveness? “It can result in that but it’s not a huge issue. They’re pretty easy to live with. They’re more mean to each other if they’re hungry. “A desperate bear focuses on eating and they can be feisty. There’s a sense of urgency early in the spring when they come out.” Spring is extremely important to bears but so is fall. “Then they suffer from hyperphagia, which is excessive eating. A lot of us know what that is. “They’re preparing for denning and it’s 24/7. They’re eating as much high-calorie food as possible. “It’s the perfect time for salmon swimming upstream,” Morgan said. “For the pregnant females, if they do not acquire sufficient fat levels, they will abort the egg. They mate in the spring, but the egg doesn’t begin to grow until the fall. It’s a physiological trait.” The next time you’re hungry as a bear, you can now put it in perspective. For more information on bears, including how to avoid them and what to you and the bear meet, go to the excellent Web site, www.bearinfo.com. Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com. Bear Facts • The ancestors of our black bears came across the Bering Land Bridge from Asia more than 3 million years ago. The modern form of black bear was a part of the North American landscape about 500,000 years ago. • Bears are the smartest animals behind whales and dolphins. • They’re fast as a racehorse over a short distance. • There are about 25,000 black bears in 31 counties in Washington. • We have a healthy bear population in North America, at least 760,000. The grizzly population is not doing so well. Once, there were thousands of grizzlies, now there are fewer than 1,100 grizzly bears in the continental United States, according to the Humane Society. In the late 1800s, over a 30-year period, 4,000 hides were shipped out by the Hudson Bay Co., according to its records. • To report poaching of black bears, call the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s hot line at 800-477-6224.