Scientists studying brown bears in Slovenia found that access to human food reduced the amount of time spent in hibernation and made bears more likely to interact with people. Bears were also more likely to leave dens to hang around human feeding sites. The findings have important ecological implications and raise safety concerns for both humans and bears. The details are in a paper that was just published in the Journal of Zoology.
Brown bears (Ursus arctos) are large omnivorous mammals found throughout much of North America and Eurasia. As winter approaches, brown bears gain extra weight, find a safe den, and hibernate. The hibernation period can vary and brown bears are more likely to wake up early compared to other hibernating mammals. Human activity can affect the hibernation habits of brown bears.
Researchers studied wild brown bears in Slovenia. The team identified bear dens by using GPS telemetry data and then monitored the sites. The researchers compared their data to databases from other bear populations in Europe, North America, and Asia. The team also analyzed data collected from populations where human feeding is rare.
The research team found that human feeding significantly reduced the amount of time brown bears spent in their dens. Hibernation periods also fell sharply, up to 56% shorter than populations that didn’t have access to regular supplemental food. In Slovenia, hunters regularly leave out corn to bait bears for hunting. This constant supply of food appeared to change the bears’ habits, especially in hibernation and denning behaviors. The majority of bears abandoned dens at least once in order to move to sites with bait.
The team’s findings show that supplemental feeding by humans, especially hunters attempting to bait the animals, changes the hibernation patterns of brown bears. Bears were also more likely to abandon dens in favor of feeding sites. The authors note that this can be dangerous because it increases the likelihood of interactions between bears and people. The team believes that this type of baiting shouldn’t be used since it has impacts on human safety and the local ecosystem.
Krofel M, Špacapan M, Jerina K. Winter sleep with room service: denning behaviour of brown bears with access to anthropogenic food. Journal of Zoology (2016).