Bears, they’re just like us. And I’m not referring to a subset of hairy humans, but to some furry critters in Wisconsin whose diets contain a staggering amount of junk food. Seriously!
There’s a reason for their sugary diet. This population of bears in Wisconsin lives by the law—hunters can feed them bait for up to six months out of the year. Bait, which includes junk food, lures the black bears in, making them easier to capture. Scientists in the area have been studying a population of bears to see just how much bait they’re actually eating, and it turns out, a lot. Hunters’ bait might be helping the bear populations out in an unnatural way.
Why junk food, you might be asking? “One of the restrictions about baiting in Wisconsin is you can’t use animals or animal byproducts—no meat,” study author Dr. Becky Kirby, who led the research while at the University of Wisconsin, Madison told Gizmodo. “That means these sources are high sugar, high fat foods that people and bears both like. Cookies, donuts, cake frosting, peanut butter, it’s all across the board.”
Here’s a random bear eating actual trash:
The team of researchers reconstructed the diets of over a hundred bears killed by hunters in Northwest Wisconsin from 2011 to 2013, by measuring chemicals in their hair, blood, and bones. Through a morbid combination of procedures requiring chloroform, spatulas, scissors and chemistry equipment, they analyzed specific chemical dietary markers for animal meat, natural plant life, and bait. They found that around 40 percent of the bears’ diets came from bait meant for either deer or bears, not just for the year the bears were hunted, but over the course of their lives. The team published their study recently in the Journal of Wildlife Management.
The junk food-loving bear situation comes in part from the specifics of Wisconsin’s hunting laws. The baiting season can last six months, which is longer than other states—baiting season is only a few weeks in neighboring Minnesota. For bears surviving to the following year, bait might just become an integral part of the diet.
Here is another bear, eating trash:
Is this bad? Parker’s team didn’t really look at how the bears were doing physiologically—but there are lots of bears in Wisconsin, and lots of bait. Obviously, this study’s results are specific to Wisconsin, and are limited by the fact that it only included hunted bears.
Moreover, who cares about a hairy army of junk-food loving bears stumbling around the woods of northern Wisconsin? Mainly, the research highlights the degree to which humans cause some wildlife populations to rely on them for food. If killing and scavenging is the bear equivalent to cooking meals, and eating bait is ordering delivery, then bears are ordering in every night of the week, and on some days they’re even ordering lunch. This is normal for some humans, but obviously not for bears, and could have important implications for the way states operate their bating seasons and manage their bear populations.
Here’s a third bear, also eating trash:
It does make you wonder, though, what the bears’ favorite snacks are. Wisconsin happens to have some very good cheese-covered popcorn.