Urban Black Bears: Live Fast, Die Young

If it pains you to see a wild animal like these black bear cubs in a dumpster, think how they feel—especially since bears lured to urban areas by the availability of garbage die at such high rates that not even getting fat on human detritus and reproducing while still teenagers (in human years) can compensate for their higher mortality, according to the first study of overall impact of urban areas on black bears.

It has long been known that garbage attracts bears and causes them to ditch their natural diet; who wants to scrounge for berries when there’s half a Big Mac in someone’s uncovered garbage can? But Jon P. Beckman of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Carl W. Lacey of the Nevada Department of Wildlife went further. They followed 22 female black bears—12 in an urban environment and 10 in wildland habitats—from 1997 to 2006 in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains, including around Carson City and Lake Tahoe, to assess the impact of people and their garbage over the bears’ lifetimes, they report in the journal Human-Wildlife Conflicts.

They find that bears in urban areas weigh more (about 30 percent more than bears in wild areas, because their natural diet is heavily supplemented by garbage) and get pregnant at a younger age (on average, when they are between 4 and 5 years old, rather than 7 to 8 years for bears in wild areas; some urban bears around Lake Tahoe even reproduced at the age of 3).

Despite these advantages, female bears in urban areas do not leave more offspring over their lifetime because their lifetime is cut short. Due to collisions with vehicles, all 12 urban bears in the study were dead by age 10, while only 4 wildland bears died young. As the scientists conclude, “bears in urban areas have experienced elevated levels of mortality that exceed reproductive rates, even though urban bears are more fecund than wildland bears.”

The vehicular homicides are only increasing. The average of almost 9 bears killed by vehicles every year from 1997 to 2008 represents a 17-fold increase from the late 1980s. Also at that time, bears were not so conditioned to human food, so no bears were destroyed because of concerns that their proximity to people would cause them to start eating pets or attacking humans; in contrast, during the 10 years of this study 27 bears were euthanized.