September 23, 2019

“Bear”ing the Brunt of Emerging Bears in New York

“White was greeted Monday morning with the chaos of a black bear having torn into a 175-pound bucket of cracked corn and chicken feed and ripped into bags as well.”<<<Read More>>>

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Bears Awakening in Connecticut

Take notice of the blue tag on the bear’s left ear.

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Black Bears Coming Out of Hibernation

bearinfeedersmall

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

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Hungry Bears

In a way I sort of chuckled yesterday when I read a short news story from a Maine NBC television affiliate, WCSH6 out of Portland, about hungry bears coming out of hibernation. Specifically I got a kick out of this statement:

Police on Tuesday advised residents of one Rumford neighborhood to take in their bird feeders, gas grills and garbage cans after a black bear was spotted wandering around. Police tell the Sun Journal that once the food sources are removed, the bears will return to the woods.

I mean really? The bears will return to the woods? Might I ask why they came out of the woods to begin with? Isn’t it because during this time of the year there is so little natural food, it drives them out of the woods in search for human assistance?

While it is good advice to do what you can to “bear proof” your home and property, the notion that doing so will send the bears back to the woods is more than a bit misleading. The bears will return to the woods as soon as they have natural food to eat; that is providing people don’t continue to feed the bears.

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What Drives Maine’s Black Bears to Hibernate?

There have been some interesting discussions over the past couple of weeks or so about Maine’s black bear hunting season and the fact that hunters seems to be having good success and large bears are being taken. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) predicted a higher success rate for hunters this season and they attributed it to the lack of natural food. To go along with this claim, the same predictors said that bears would eat early, hibernate early and exit their dens early come spring.

If interested you can read the articles I wrote about this topic here and here.

It made little sense to me that black bears would show up in record-breaking sizes in a year when there was no natural food, as claimed by MDIFW scientists. I was also troubled by statements made that what drives bears into hibernation is lack of food. This prompted me to go on a multiple day search and rescue mission to see what I could see as it pertained to scientific studies, available to anyone with a computer (and a few extra dollars). What I discovered is that some of my suspicions were confirmed and some of what MDIFW scientists presented was confirmed.

The first major thing I discovered is that most all the studies on bears and black bears specifically, all deal with the physiological affects on bears when hibernating. Not surprisingly, it also appeared these studies were motivated by a desire to learn more so that one day humans can choose (or be forced) to hibernate.

The short of it is that little exists that specifically addresses why bears hibernate, i.e. is there something physiological that takes place or is it as MDIFW biologists state, that it’s all about the food supply? The answer is both.

In some studies, like this one on “The Comparative Anatomy of Eating“, I found statements not unlike several other studies not specific to the forces driving bears to hibernation:

Their diet is dominated by primarily succulent lent herbage, tubers and berries. Many scientists believe the reason bears hibernate is because their chief food (succulent vegetation) not available in the cold northern winters.

It appears as though what actually goes on with a bear in hibernation, if I can put this in words most people, including myself, will understand, is that a bear changes its metabolism. The effects are a myriad of things and the timing and degree to which such changes takes place seem to a product of diet and length and depth of hibernation, among other things.

In another study about how glucose responses by the bears with natural and manipulated amounts, still seem to be regulated by the bear:

Furthermore, the apparent increase in glucose utilization at the end of hibernation when fat stores are nearly exhausted suggests a continuum of metabolic activity from early to late hibernation with a transition to the active phase by the end of hibernation.

All very interesting but what drives the bear to head for the den? It was difficult, at best, to find anything definitive but I think the general consensus was that “something” triggers a black bear’s natural physiological response to increase fat supplies. During this time period, called the hyperphagic stage (transitioning from normal activity to hibernation), the bear naturally begins a gradual metabolic (if that be the correct term) change that will eventually lead them to their favorite winter hibernation local.

It also appears that the time in which a bear decides to actually head into the den can be influenced by whether or not there remains any food to eat. This is part of the equation but not all of it.

In a study titled, “Environmental Relationships and the Denning Period of Black Bears in Tennessee“, we get a glimpse at perhaps what that “something” is that begins to transition toward hibernation:

Den entry and strong fidelity to dens by all instrumented bears indicated that the intensity of dormancy did not differ from that in northern regions; however, duration of dormancy was considerably shorter. Cumulative effects of increased precipitation and lower maximum and higher minimum temperatures, which correspond to passage of a low pressure weather front, provided a proximate stimulus to enter dens. Food supply also appeared to affect denning in a proximal manner because bears denned earlier in years with fair to poor mast yields than in years with excellent mast yields.

The study further explains what determines the timing of denning:

Emergence dates were less strongly correlated with environmental factors. Ultimate synchronization of denning behavior with the environment is best explained by a circannual (endogenous) rhythm; this rhythm is easily shortened or lengthened allowing flexibility depending on environmental variation and the ecology of a species. Such a rhythm encompasses the observed variation in environmental factors affecting the denning period of bears over their broad geographic range and diverse ecological conditions.

It does appear that it’s not just food that determines when denning will occur but a myriad of environmental factors.

But why are Maine’s bears so fat when there’s a poor supply of natural food available? Generally speaking I am not convinced that they are. As the study suggests, it may be proximal, in that the reason we are seeing more bigger, fatter bears is because they got fat from eating bait put out by hunters and guides.

Maine allows baiting to begin approximately one month before opening of the hunting season. One MDIFW biologist told John Holyoke, at the Bangor Daily News, that one bear he was aware of gained 65 pounds in 16 days. If that’s true, then for 30 days of feasting at a bait station, one can imagine the amount of weight a hungry, greedy and dominating bear can put on.

So, are when then to conclude that what we are seeing at the tagging stations is not indicative to what the rest of the bear population, that is those without access to bait barrels, is like? The data being collected by biologists on the bears at tagging stations, is this good, usable and representative data of the general condition of all of Maine’s bears?

With the information I have gathered, some of which I have shared, I can concur that the timing of when black bears decide to go to sleep is partially driven by food supply. I do have concerns about whether big, fat bears is a real representation of the condition of the population in general.

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