Heavyweight champions: As Steamboat’s black bears stock up for winter, wildlife officers urge public to lock up trash
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Some overstuffed black bears have been spotted around Steamboat Springs in recent days, waddling like they have barrels in their bellies.
Their roundness is not due to any missed days at the gym, but the result of an annual, pre-hibernation phase known as hyperphagia.
“It compels them to pack on as many pounds as they can as they prepare to den up,” said Mike Porras with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
During this phase, bears spend about 20 hours of their day eating, trying to ingest about 20,000 calories every day.
“That’s about 70 cheeseburgers a day or more,” Porras said.
The animals have therefore been more ravenous than usual. This comes after the Steamboat Springs Police Department responded to a record number of bear incidents this summer, most of which concerned trash break-ins.
Wildlife officers are urging the public to stay vigilant about securing food and trash during the fall and winter when people tend to be more neglectful about being “bear aware,” according to Porras.
Last week, the Police Department responded to a report of a bear that got into an unlocked truck in the 200 block of Locust Court. The animal destroyed the inside of the vehicle looking for food and trying to find a way out, according to Sgt. Shane Musgrave. Officers were able to carefully open the door and scare the bear away.
The animal’s annual pound-packing routine has become an ever-popular spectacle in recent years, thanks in part to photos and videos that have gone viral on social media. Last week, the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska announced the winner of its “Fat Bear Week” competition, which began in 2014.
This year’s award went to “435 Holly,” a female grizzly now round-bellied with sockeye salmon.
“She is fat. She is fabulous. She is 435 Holly,” the park wrote in a Facebook post. “All hail Holly whose healthy heft will help her hibernate until the spring. Long live the Queen of Corpulence!”
For the bears, the fall feeding frenzy is a matter of survival, according to Porras. During this phase, which accompanies the colder autumn season, the animals need to store enough calories to last the harsh winter months. Bears avoid the snow and subzero temperatures by hibernating, slowly burning through the fat they accumulated in the fall.
Black bears can lose as much as 40% of their body weight during their long slumber, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Fatter bears in the fall therefore make for healthier bears in the winter.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife offers information about how to avoid conflicts with bears on its website.
Bear-proof your home
- Don’t feed bears, and don’t put out food for other wildlife that attracts bears.
- Be responsible about trash and bird feeders.
- Burn food off barbeque grills and clean after each use.
- Keep all bear-accessible windows and doors closed and locked, including home, garage and vehicle doors.
- Don’t leave food, trash, coolers, air fresheners or anything that smells in your vehicle.
- Pick fruit before it ripens, and clean up fallen fruit.
- Talk to your neighbors about doing their part to be bear responsible.
During this phase of nonstop eating, local black bears are munching mostly on berries and acorns, Porras said. They also incorporate some roughage into their diet in the form of grasses and plants. During hibernation, the indigestible plant material forms what wildlife experts at the National Park Service call “fecal plugs,” which prevent bears from defecating during hibernation.
It is also a phase when bears tend to be more aggressive about munching on human food sources for an easy meal but also a problematic one.
As wildlife officials have stressed time and time again, when people fail to be responsible with food and trash, it endangers both the public and wildlife.
Wildlife officers track bears that repeatedly get into trash cans or that are brazen enough to break into vehicles and homes. If attempts to relocate the animal are not successful, officers resort to lethal action.
“It would likely lead to the early demise of that bear,” Porras said.
As he emphasized, the more people take responsibility in securing their food and trash, the fewer problems they will have with wildlife.
On Nov. 16, Steamboat Springs City Council is holding a work session to determine how to reduce human conflicts with bears. They will look to other towns to determine effective strategies, such as stricter enforcement of existing ordinances.
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