Whiff of garbage will bring bruins from miles away

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By Sylvia Brockner

Snow and below-freezing temperatures tell us that winter is here, even though it’s still supposed to be fall. Shortening days are growing still shorter and will for three more months until the winter solstice is reached and the pendulum swings the other way and they begin to slowly grow longer. My husband, Bill, used to feel the same way, and we used to celebrate Dec. 22 as if it were the first day of spring and then celebrate again in March when it really was the first day of spring and the days began to get longer than the nights.

Tonight as I write, it is cold and windy, but I hesitate to build a fire in the fireplace, which always cheers me up. But the sound of the furnace turning on says it is winter. The one good thing about the cold, dark nights is that our local bear will soon give up roaming the neighborhood and go to sleep. He (it) has become increasingly brave as his hunger drives him into more and more contact with people or, more accurately, with people’s garbage. It is such an easy thing to control bears, for it is people’s garbage that attracts them like a magnet, and keeping garbage inside in a covered airtight can is one way of controlling their raids and their presence in the neighborhood. This is not just wishful thinking but a well-proven fact.

The Catskill Mountains of New York state have an exceptionally large bear population, there are few bear-people conflicts because of strict laws regarding garbage. People are heavily fined for putting their garbage out the night before pick-up, so they just don’t do it. Bears do not just associate garbage with people unless they have been taught to do so by careless people who put their garbage out to sit all night perfuming he neighborhood.

Bears are gifted with a wonderful sense of smell and will come from miles at the whiff of garbage. The Catskills are much like Evergreen; there are hundreds of summer cabins and many fine restaurants in a forested area about 25 miles from New York City.

Unfortunately, once bears learn about garbage, they become addicted to it and are quickly attracted by the odor. They never forget that smell and will seek it out over and over again. This makes it all but impossible to take them far enough away so they won’t return.

We have only black bears in the United States now. At one time grizzly bears were common in the Yellowstone Park area, but they have been all but eliminated in the contiguous states. They are still found in Alaska along with their Alaskan counterpart, the big brown, bear and the polar bear of the far north.

The North American black bear is the most common of the three and occurs over the greatest area. It is found in 32 states all across Canada and northern Mexico. Brown bears are pretty much limited to Alaska and the Canadian Pacific northwest and the polar bears to the Arctic coast.

Scientists have not divided bears into as many subspecies as they have some of the other animals. So, they list only eight species for the world, although there are many variations within local areas. Therefore, beyond the three species listed above for North America, there are only five other species around the world. They are the Asiatic black bear that is native to parts of southern Asia and the Kamchatka Peninsula; the sun bear of Indonesia; the spectacled bear of South America; the giant panda of China; and the sloth bear of India and Indonesia.

Black bears have fluxed back and forth across North America for 3.5 million years. They arrived via the Bearing Land Bridge. When they first arrived, they were prey for the big predators such as the saber-toothed tigers and other large Pleistocene cats. They learned to climb trees in the forests in order to survive.

As ice ages advanced and retreated, the black bear learned to be a generalist, eating meat, insects, plants and all types of food. They still cling to forested areas where they have a variety of food and trees to climb to escape grizzly bears, etc. They are no match for the big brown bears or polar bears but seem to be better at survival.

Black bears seldom attack people but will if you have food and they are hungry. Much of their range does not provide enough food for them to gain enough weight in fall to carry them through winter. These are the bears that turn to people’s garbage and get themselves into trouble. If you want to know more about bears, the wildlife discovery films on television are excellent and their companion book, “Bears of the World,” is available in the Jeffco Public Library system. Enjoy them and learn more about these big neighbors.