January 29, 2023

Black Bears Coming Out of Hibernation

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Milt Inman Photo

*Editor’s Note* – This article first appeared in the Bethel Citizen.

Open Air
with Tom Remington

Black Bears Coming Out of Hibernation

For Maine’s black bears, emerging from hibernation is their rite of spring and driving them out of their “caves” is hunger and probably not the smell of May flowers.

In early April, Randy Cross, black bear biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, held a seminar in Wayne, Maine about black bears. He stated that Maine’s bear population is estimated at around 31,000. For those having difficulty determining what 31,000 bears means, I’ll tell you it means a lot of bears. It might even mean the most bears ever in the state. More importantly it means your chances of encountering a bear, whether you want to or not, also increases.

There are many studies about black bears and what drives them into hibernation in the early winter and what stirs them in spring to crawl back into their other world. In simplest terms for readers, they hibernate because they have run out of natural food and wake up from hibernation because the climate outside is changing and they are hungry.

Hungry bears can often lead to trouble and that trouble happens when bears visit your property looking for food. There are things you can do to reduce those chances.

Anytime you read about an instance when someone was “attacked” by a black bear, you will often read the disclaimer that says something to the effect that it is rare for a bear to attack a human. This is true but it’s just as important to try to understand why it is rare. It is also important to know that, although rare, it can and does happen and you need to be vigilant.

Circumstances drive all wildlife actions. Under normal and ideal conditions, seldom do people have serious encounters with wildlife and in this case black bears. But when those circumstances change, us humans may not be out in the wild enough to know these circumstances are altering the behavior of the black bear.

Natural food availability for wild animals is always a habit-altering circumstance. When they have ample natural food, usually these larger predators pay little attention to what you are doing. Upon emerging from their winter dens, a hungry bear almost immediately begins searching for food to fill a stomach that’s been empty for several weeks. (Thus, the origins of the term, “hungry as a bear.”)

In spring, usually before what is commonly known as “green up”, there is not an abundance of natural food available and for this reason bears, with their sensitive noses, get drawn to homes and farms where there might be an easy meal.

Most farmers who have been at their trades for some time, understand what happens in spring, as well as other times throughout the year, when wild animals might be preying on farm critters, crops, open grain bins, etc. Farmers experiencing spring birthing seasons for their livestock, know that tiny new offspring become a dinner menu item of large predators.

For the average home owner however, there are two major things people should be aware of: bird feeders and garbage cans. A hungry bear is not a fussy bear and cleaning out a bird feeder takes only a few moments but sometimes the mere fact that a bear was drawn to your home because of a bird feeder, can lead to other problems – like getting into your garbage or attempting to make a meal out of your pets, or worse.

The worst case scenario to consider here is that large predators, and in Maine’s case mostly black bears and coyotes, do look and examine small children as potential dinner. If you pay attention you’ll notice that most “attacks” by bears and coyotes, happen on small children, I think for obvious reasons.

My advice would be to take down your bird feeders. This is only necessary for a few weeks during spring and will not disrupt your friends who come regularly to your feeder. As a matter of fact, you may be doing them a favor, forcing them to go eat a bug or worm on their own.

In addition to removal of your feeder, secure your garbage. You can spend the money to purchase “bear proof” containers but at least keep the garbage where bears can’t get into it. For those of you wanting to put garbage out the night before pick-up, consider waiting until the morning to do so.

Another tip is to be aware that if you live in a place that is known to be susceptible to bear encounters, don’t leave windows open in first floor rooms where tantalizing food odors can waft outside attracting bears and other critters. Bear have been known to enter homes through windows, even when the screens are on. Screens are no deterrent to a hungry bear. Coming face to face with a bear in your kitchen snacking on Dunkin’ Donuts, is not something people would find pleasant.

I would never pretend to tell people they shouldn’t feed wildlife but please consider that when you do, you are actually creating other unnatural problems that may put the animals at risk, as well as you and your human friends, including neighbors. As it may pertain to black bears, do not, under any circumstances feed them. An habituated bear becomes a dead bear. An animal like this, that has learned not to fear humans and see them as only a food source, will result in the forcing of that animal’s death.

Tom Remington is an author, writer and long-time resident of Bethel. You can read more of his writings on outdoor issues, including the politics that go with them, on his website at tomremington.com