(C) Jack Ballard
I spot the animal along a roadside in a national park, a glimpse of something large and dark, rustling in the undergrowth. The highway is devoid of oncoming traffic, so I whip a quick U-turn for closer inspection. Mystery solved. Planted on all fours near the roadside is a black bear.
Parked, with full attention to focus on the bruin, I realize the animal is frenetically mouthing and mauling a bush for its berries. Although midday, the bear is feeding as frantically as one of my teenage sons after missing three meals. It’s late summer, a time of bounty. Ripe berries abound. There are lots of nutritious insects and scores of rodents and other mammals for Blackie to hunt, not to mention a bounty of roots and plants. All of these things are palatable to a black bear, perhaps the most omnivorous creature in North America. Why is it attacking this berry bush as if it may be its last meal?
In contrast to humans seeking to shed a dozen unwanted pounds, Blackie is bulking up. Yes, there’s plenty to eat at the moment. But in its haunts here in the northern Rockies, this black bear will retire to a den in a couple months, spending the entire winter underground. To maintain the energy needed to survive its hibernation, the bear relies on fat. The typical black bear loses around 30% of its body weight during hibernation.
In late summer and fall, instinct propels black bears to bulk up. They eat ravenously and nearly continually when food sources are available. At this time, bears prefer high-calorie foods that convert easily to fat such as nuts and berries. Has our bear missed a meal? Probably not. It’s just bulking up for winter.
Many biologists believe humans have some innate potential for hibernation, just like bears. From now until November, if you catch me pigging away at the all-you-can-eat buffet, I’m not over-indulging, just preparing for winter.