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Not So Sleepy Bears

Posted on Feb 11, 2016

While the landscape in Western New York is rapidly changing thanks to some lake effect snow, earlier this week the ground was completely uncovered, temperatures were above normal and some normally sleeping wildlife were out foraging on available food resources. These photos were taken by my dad while he and a friend were out on a walk. As you can see, that black shape isn’t a wandering cow in the corn field rather it is an American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) awake from its “hibernation.”

February Bear

According to NYS DEC and the North American Bear Center, the black bear is not a true hibernator unlike other mammals such as the woodchuck. Upon the initiation of hibernation (often dictated by day-length and food availability), true hibernators will move into their burrow and pass into a slowed state. Body temperatures will drop to near zero, breathing rates will significantly decrease, metabolisms will slow and response to arousal is delayed. Black bears on the other hand move to their dens, typically above ground, in the late fall and will go through periods of sleep and wakefulness throughout the winter. In cases such as this, when temperatures are mild and there is little snow pack, they will mosey out of their dens in search of food. And upon their return, they will go back to sleep. Once asleep, the phrase “Don’t poke the bear” still applies as black bears are still capable of arousing quickly and defending themselves if they feel threatened.

February Bear (1)

Thanks to El Niño, the weather has been warm and light on snow so far this winter season. As we enter the weekend, temperatures look as though they will drop to near zero, giving us a blast of cold air much like what we experienced through most of last February. With the currently falling snow and consistently colder temperatures, any active black bears may be returning to their dens to catch a few more z’s. In the meantime, whether you see these massive mammals on the move or stumble across them sleeping in a secluded spot, give them the respect they deserve and keep your distance. No poking allowed!

Elyse Henshaw
Conservation Technician