By: Marlene Affeld
There is fresh snow on the high mountain ridges, a bone chilling wind from the west rattles the tamarack, scattering golden needles across the forest floor. Tendrils of silver fog accent the hush that lies over the valley floor; winter is fast approaching and all of nature prepares.
Much of the wildlife that inhabits these north woods is getting ready for hibernation. Many mammals have the ability to sleep through the cold, gray days ahead. Chipmunks, skunks and squirrels as well as raccoons, rodents and bats simply bed down and hardly stir until they arise again in the spring. As true hibernators, their body temperatures drop to near ambient and heart rates slow dramatically as they experience a deep comatose sleep state of torpidity. However, these animals will periodically rouse themselves from their deep slumber to eat stored food, quench their thirst and to urinate or defecate. Rodents sleep very deeply while others slumber more lightly.
Bears are a bit different. Both black bears and grizzly bears go into a physiological state often called hibernation or winter sleep, yet it is not true hibernation but rather a winter dormancy. During a bear’s winter sleep their heart rate decreases only slightly and body temperature drops only a few degrees from normal. Usually the bear will not awaken during this extended deep sleep and therefore they do not drink, eat, exercise or defecate and will remain in their den for the entire winter. Hibernating bears are quite an amazing biological wonder. Although they are completely inactive all winter, they do not suffer muscle atrophy or bone loss as a human would. Bears' bones continue to grow during their winter sleep and their reserve of fat meets all their nutritional needs.
Left undisturbed, bears will sleep all winter long, sometimes without even changing position once they are comfortably settled in. Although deeply asleep, bears are easily aroused and can, if necessary, respond and be active very quickly. Like humans, a disturbed bear can be a very grumpy bear.
Females give birth to their cubs during their winter sleep and together they snuggle until spring. Scientist tell us that bears do not enter into deep hibernation because they require a higher body temperature to meet the demands of pregnancy, birth and nursing their young. Actual births are rarely observed in the wild; however, it is believed that bear cubs are born between early December and late January or early February. Pregnant females are the first to retire to their dens, followed by mothers and their cubs. Last to settle down are the big males. Female bears have been known to hibernate from the end of September until May and even early June.
In Montana, most bears enjoy their winter sleep for as many as five to six months or more, usually entering the den in the latter part of November and not awakening until mid April. The length of hibernation depends on location, climate and the sex, age and reproductive status of the individual bear. While temperature and the amount of daylight hours are important motivators in dictating when bears hibernate, the most important factor is whether bears have eaten sufficient amounts to keep them going throughout their long rest, A malnourished bear with an inadequate reserve of fat may not hibernate or will do so only for a short time.
The main reason bears hibernate is based on their diet. Fish, berries, insects and vegetation are unavailable under the deep winter snows. Nature provides the bear with an insatiable appetite during times of plenty, enabling the bear to consume large quantities of food to store as fat for the coming winter sleep. Scientific research indicates that the main purpose of hibernation in bears is to reduce the number of calories burned when food is scarce rather than a response to the frigid temperature. Despite the intense cold that surrounds them, bears burn less than half as many calories during their winter sleep as they do when active in the summer months and do just fine living off their fat reserves.
Soon snow will blanket the high country and the bears will sleep, awaiting spring. Native American tribal legends tell of bears sucking their paws in the den to sustain themselves during the winter. William Wood (New England's Prospect, 1634) reported, "In the winter, [bears] take themselves to the clefts of rocks...to shelter them from the cold; and food being scant in those cold and hard times, they live only by sleeping and sucking their paws, which kept them as fat as they are in Summer."
Bears in northern latitudes shed their foot pads during late winter and may sometimes lick their feet and devour portions of the shed pads. The re-grown pads are often very tender and a bear's feet may crack and bleed when the animal first leaves the den.
Bears are not choosy and will use many materials or sites to create a winter den. They will often choose caves, brush piles or hollow trees as well as rock piles and on occasion, human structures. Some bears seek a little extra comfort and will often line the den with twigs, grasses, moss or other available vegetation.
In NW Montana, Ursus americanus or black bear and Ursus arctos, the grizzly bear, are considered sympatric species in that they occupy roughly the same territory but do not interbreed. In a comprehensive study of grizzly bears conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, it was determined that approximately 765 grizzly bears live in Northwestern Montana, nearly two-and-a-half times more bears than previously thought. It is also estimated that black bears number in the tens of thousands in this neck of the woods. Hunters harvest an average of 1,200 black bears statewide every year, and more than half of them come from Northwest Montana.
Any encounter with a bear is a potential danger; however, bears are particularly aggressive prior to hibernation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in its publication “Close Encounters with Grizzlies”,
advises the following when encountering bears in the wild:
“Bears are naturally shy and typically avoid humans. Encounters usually occur because the bear has been attracted by food, garbage, or other odors; or has been surprised by a hiker. The most common causes of an attack are a person surprising a bear at close range, approaching a female with cubs, or getting close to a carcass or other food source. It is best to educate yourself about bears and learn to avoid encounters: don’t take actions that attract bears; know signs of bears and steer clear of them; and know how to properly alert bears to your presence. But if you do inadvertently encounter a bear, here are some tips for ensuring the safety of both yourself and the bear.
If you see a bear
You should always maintain a safe distance and behave in a non-threatening manner. Most human encounters with bears do not result in physical attacks. In fact, injuries are seldom caused by bears; it is more common that a bear is unnecessarily injured by a fearful human. Most bears will try hard to avoid people.
Drop a non-food item (like a hat or bandana) on the ground in front of you and slowly back away, speak in a soft monotone, and avoid eye contact. The bear may stand on its hind legs to get a better view, or huff and growl as a threat display. In most cases, the bear will then leave.
If you encounter a sow with cubs
A female protecting her cubs is the most dangerous of all bears. Try to create as much distance between you and the bears. Do not turn your back, but slowly leave the area immediately if you can.
Never run from a bear
A bear can run 50 yards in 3 seconds, or up to 40 mph, faster than a race horse for short distances, and faster than any human, uphill or downhill. Running away will only encourage the bear to chase you.
Your first option is to remain standing. Charging bears often veer away, run past you, or stop abruptly at the last second. This is called a bluff charge, and means the bear is warning you to leave the area.
If you have bear spray
Carrying pepper spray and knowing how to use it properly is the best deterrent against a bear attack, and can lessen the duration or seriousness of an attack that occurs. Professional wildlife biologists who work in the field depend on bear spray and trust it as an effective tool to prevent injury to both people and bears.
If you have a firearm
Wounding a bear, even with a large caliber gun, can put you in far greater danger. Most mortally wounded bears live long enough to inflict serious injury upon their attacker. Correct use of pepper spray has proven to be more effective than use of a firearm in deterring an attack and preventing serious injury.
If the bear makes physical contact
Drop to the ground, lie face down, and assume a cannonball position. Leave your pack on, cover your neck and head with your arms and hands, and curl up to protect your stomach. Play dead.
It is very rare for a bear to become predatory, or to attack a person in a tent. If this occurs, the bear is probably seeking food, rather than trying to neutralize a threat; in this case, FIGHT BACK to show the bear you are dangerous and that an easy meal cannot be found there.
Report all encounters
If you do encounter a bear, report it as soon as possible to local authorities, or the nearest forest, park, or game and fish department office. Your report may help prevent someone else from being hurt.”