At Adirondack Wildlife, we are receiving one or two calls a day about reportedly orphaned bear cubs, and since we have experience with both wild and captive-bred bears, and since bear activity is very seasonal in nature, here is what we believe is happening. Black bear hibernation is not about the cooler temperatures of winter, but rather the availability of food.
While we humans tend to want to be slim and attractive, bears want to be as fat as possible to help them survive the winter months. Bears grow very thick coats to neutralize the cold, and they spend most of the Fall taking on as many calories as they can, building up their weight, and slowly metabolizing the excess weight over the winter months.
Ninety percent of what black bears and grizzlies eat tend to be grasses and grains, wild fruit, berries, and vegetation. Bears are opportunistic and will eat meat when available through scavenging or predation, but sometimes, for example the two captive bred sow bears many of you met at the Wildlife Refuge, turn out to be vegans, who wouldn’t touch meat, probably because they were spoiled with a wide range of the foods listed above. Favorite autumn foods of Adirondack black bears are acorns, beechnuts, hobblebush, apples and any pumpkins or veggies still in the field.
Bear hibernation is not sleeping, but more like entering a state of torpor, minimizing physical movement to preserve energy. When our two bears stopped eating, around the end of November, they would begin to go in and out of the den, as though to check things out, while building a nest out of the three or four bales of hay we’d toss in the den. They would finally settle in, and I would check on them every day to be sure their hibernation was going well. I’d stick my head into the den, and they would raise their heads briefly to look at me. Florida black bears only hibernate for about a month, while those in the Yukon’s longer winter, six months is more the norm.
This time of year, barren sows and boars are probably still foraging, taking advantage of any food they can locate. Pregnant sows and sows with “cubs of the year”, meaning cubs born last January, during last winter’s hibernation, are already hibernating. Cubs can get separated from their moms, in which case they may try to find an apple tree, with its bounty of fruit, and they’ll hang around, often sleeping in the tree.
They may cry, attempting to attract mom, who may periodically wander outside her den, trying to smell or hear the missing cub. Observe the cub, and check its condition: this time of year, cubs should weigh between 35 and 50 lbs., keeping in mind that boars weigh more than sows. If they appear hearty, roundish and thickly furred, it means they’re harvesting enough nutrition to probably survive the winter. Keep in mind, bears do not eat, drink, pee or poop during hibernation, though on a balmy winter day, they’re like us, and may go for a walk.
The cub may be able to hibernate on its own, and it may find a porch to spend the winter under, a small cave or cluster of boulders, or a toppled tree’s roots. It goes without saying that one should never disturb a hibernating bear, so areas with free ranging dogs may prove challenging for the bear.
If the cub appears emaciated, there’s a problem and obviously the cub is not getting enough nutrition. If this describes what you’re seeing or hearing, you may be tempted to call the DEC, who will probably tell you they won’t interfere with natural processes in Nature. In New York, we do have wildlife rehabilitators who are licensed to rescue, rehab and release bears, and a good place to start is North Country Wildcare, at 518-964-6740. Keep in mind that rehabilitators can only help animals they can catch, which in the case of cubs, will require a have-a-heart trap
Bears are most closely related to pigs, and the latter are often considered the most intelligent animal after primates (for example, us), elephants and dolphins. Never, never, never feed bears, as they are intelligent territorial creatures of habit, and will return to and check out anywhere they’ve found food in the past. This will acclimate bears to people, which is the usual cause of bears being euthanized, hence the phrase, “a fed bear is a dead bear.”
Photo at top by Stephen Hall