U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


Human development and climate affect hibernation in a large carnivore with implications for human–carnivore conflicts

Heather Johnson, USGS
David L. Lewis, Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Tana L. Verzuh, Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Cody F. Wallace, Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Rebecca M. Much, Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Lyle K. Willmarth, Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Stewart W. Breck, USDA National Wildlife Research Center

Document Type Article

US govt work


1. Expanding human development and climate change are dramatically altering habitat conditions for wildlife. While the initial response of wildlife to changing environmental conditions is typically a shift in behaviour, little is known about the effects of these stressors on hibernation behaviour, an important life-history trait that can subsequently affect animal physiology, demography, interspecific interactions and human-wildlife interactions. Given future trajectories of land use and climate change, it is important that wildlife professionals understand how animals that hibernate are adapting to altered landscape conditions so that management activities can be appropriately tailored.

2. We investigated the influence of human development and weather on hibernation in black bears (Ursus americanus), a species of high management concern, whose behaviour is strongly tied to natural food availability, anthropogenic foods around development and variation in annual weather conditions. Using GPS collar data from 131 den events of adult female bears (n = 51), we employed fine-scale, animal-specific habitat information to evaluate the relative and cumulative influence of natural food availability, anthropogenic food and weather on the start, duration and end of hibernation.

3. We found that weather and food availability (both natural and human) additively shaped black bear hibernation behaviour. Of the habitat variables we examined, warmer temperatures were most strongly associated with denning chronology, reducing the duration of hibernation and expediting emergence in the spring. Bears appeared to respond to natural and anthropogenic foods similarly, as more natural foods, and greater use of human foods around development, both postponed hibernation in the fall and decreased its duration.

4. Synthesis and applications. Warmer temperatures and use of anthropogenic food subsides additively reduced black bear hibernation, suggesting that future changes in climate and land use may further alter bear behaviour and increase the length of their active season. We speculate that longer active periods for bears will result in subsequent increases in human–bear conflicts and human-caused bear mortalities. These metrics are commonly used by wildlife agencies to index trends in bear populations, but have the potential to be misleading when bear behaviour dynamically adapts to changing environmental conditions, and should be substituted with reliable demographic methods.