Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Garbage Day

In today's NY Times, we read about the "urbanization" of bears in the United States, a process driven by relentless development in the Nevada Mountains, the Adirondacks, and other traditional bear habitats that are now being consumed by resort lodges, golf courses, summer homes and the like. Like the humans who live and play there, bears would rather eat garbage:

"Garbage is the ultimate resource for bears," said Dr. Jon P. Beckmann, who studied the black bears of western Nevada for his doctoral dissertation and now works in the mountain West as a field ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, the organization that manages the Bronx Zoo.

Garbage is richer in calories than nuts or berries, he said, and it is much easier to find, turning up regularly in the trash bins and garbage cans of every subdivision. And unlike a berry patch that produces fruit only once a year, the trash bins are like a chain of luncheonettes for bears that never run out of food. Bears that live on garbage are heavier and taller than their country cousins, Dr. Beckmann said. They even have more cubs.

I can already hear the anti-environmentalists yodeling incoherently over this one. "See? You wackos focus all your attention on insignificant species like the snail darter or the spotted owl, but this article shows that human gluttony is good for the environment! Oil drilling is good for the caribou in ANWR! Climate change is good for the plants — and for us. See? It's all nicely balanced. Thank God Mother Nature is smarter than you Gaia-worshipping fruitcakes!"

The article notes the obvious, though. Bigger and more fecund bears do not a healthy ecosystem make. "Nuisance bears" (or "garbage bears," as we call them in Juneau) have been known to stop hibernating — which just can't be good for them — and are less able to feed themselves when they are inevitably tranquilized and sent back into the wild. Moreover, when the garbage runs out they are likely to break into houses and cars in search of food.

That is just one reason naturalists hope that bears will eventually give up the bright lights and return to their wild roots. In spite of the urban abundance of food, and the fact that urban females have on average 2¼ cubs per litter, compared with 1½ for rural bears, the overall bear population is not increasing, Dr. Beckmann said, probably because so many urban bears are killed by cars and trucks. Also, bears living in towns do not perform the ecological tasks - like seed dispersal or insect-eating - they would normally perform in the wild.

But given the sprawling growth in places like Nevada, bears do not have to move to town to find themselves urbanized. "We had a bear that had 400 homes go up right in the middle of its home range," Dr. Beckmann said. "Now it spends its entire time within those 400 homes."

Isn't there some way these bears can be taught to read The Monkey Wrench Gang? Where's their Morgan Spurlock?