Long winter's nap not so long for some bears

Poor health, winter food or disturbances reasons for short hibernation

Posted: Sunday, January 14, 2007

When winter comes, bears hibernate and birds fly south.

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That's conventional wisdom, but we know there are exceptions. We see robins sometimes in midwinter, and lots of ducks stick around.

And as we've seen with the black bear cub that's been active this month in Douglas, some bears roam when most are asleep.

"We get occasional reports of bears out and about in the winter," said wildlife biologist Ryan Scott, based in Douglas. "There were sightings of a bear wandering around the Lemon Creek area just a few weeks ago."

Black bears in Southeast typically enter their winter dens in late October and early November. They begin emerging in late March, and most come out in April. Females with cubs generally hibernate earlier and emerge later than lone bears.

It's not uncommon for bears to wake up during the winter.

There are three reasons why bears might go into hibernation later or get up in midwinter, said state wildlife biologist John Hechtel. Hechtel has spent 30 years researching bears in Alaska and Canada, and he's particularly interested in hibernation.

"If bears have access to food, or if they are in poor physical condition, they can be out when other bears are hibernating," he said. "Bears may stay out longer when there are late salmon runs, or if they are getting into garbage, especially if the weather is mild."

The third reason bears may be out mid-winter is if they are disturbed in their dens.

Snowmachine riders in the back country have reported rousing bears. Nine years ago, a geologic crew working on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in early February roused a bear, which attacked and killed one member of the party.

At the time, the refuge manager reported that it was the second bear encounter that winter. A work crew had roused a sow with cubs just a few weeks earlier.

Mild weather seems to influence hibernating bears as well. Katie Larson, the education director at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, said the zoo bears periodically get up and move around in the winter.

"Our black and brown bears will occasionally leave their dens and roam their exhibits," she said. "They do this when temperatures are warmer over several days. They are not fully awake during these times and are usually active for short periods."

She said this winter has been colder than normal and the bears have not stirred.

Hechtel has conferred with Juneau-area biologists about the black bear cub. He said it's likely that the bear is in poor condition, and that's why it's out and about.

"If he was a fat butterball, he'd be denned up," he said.

A few decades ago, it was believed that if a bear entered the winter den without the fat reserves to get through the winter, it was likely to die in the den.

But evidence indicates bears in poor condition are more likely to get up and forage, perhaps find a winter-kill carcass, rather than starve in their sleep.

For the Douglas bear cub, finding a bird feeder and getting into trash is likely the beginning of the end. Bears conditioned to human food create problems that usually get them killed.

As the adage goes, a fed bear is a dead bear, Hechtel said.

"If that bear is learning, 'If I ever need food, I'll just go find people,' that is not a good habit for a bear," he said. "That's the worst thing."

Hechtel said it's wonderful that people are concerned about bears and people can help.

"If you really care about bears, bear-proofing your garbage will save a lot more bears," he said.

He appreciates that people are sympathetic to Douglas cub, but he pointed out that it's also is a wild animal.

"It's likely that thousands of black bear cubs die in Alaska every year," he said. "It's just part of the natural process."

• Riley Woodford works with the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For comments or questions, he can be reached at riley_woodford@fishgame.state.ak.us.

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