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Bear Basics with Bernadette: As days grow longer bears awake from winter slumber

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Kris Inman and a fellow biologist huddle in a tight cavity that was used as a den by a black bear. PHOTO COURTESY OF KRIS INMAN

By Kris Inman EBS Contributor

With all the new snow and temperatures dipping below zero, it’s still very much winter in Big Sky and a great time to hit the slopes. However, the time for bears to be tucked in their dens is coming to a close.

At this point in late winter, pregnant females have given birth to their cubs while those with cubs the winter before share their dens with their young. The cubs remain with their mothers until summer, when the female kicks them off to survive the world on their own—for grizzlies at the age of 2, and for black bears, 1. The next winter, the female will raise her next litter of cubs.  

The places bears choose to den must be big enough for the bear and any young. Commonly, bears excavate the base of a hollow tree, large rocks, slopes and the root systems of blown-down trees. Where available, they might utilize natural rock cavities or ground nests that are protected by dense plant growth. The chances of someone stumbling upon a den is quite rare, but happens from time to time.

Hibernation provides bears with a safe place to give birth and is also a critical physiological adaptation for winter survival. Their metabolic system slows down, helping them to make it through the winter when food is scarce.

Not surprisingly, den entrance and emergence are influenced by snow conditions and natural food availability. Bears begin denning as early as mid-October and as late as December, and emerge from their winter slumber sometime in March. In milder winters, male bears can begin moving around as early as February.

Denning season is a time for people and bears to have a brief hiatus from sharing the landscape with each other. However, as the snow melts and the days grow longer, bears will begin to emerge from their dens, and will once again opportunistically search for food.

Now is an excellent time to get a bear-resistant trash can for your home; for construction workers to get back in the habitat of keeping lunches in locked vehicles or use bear-resistant coolers; and for businesses to be sure their dumpsters aren’t overfull and are properly closed. It’s a time for all of us to “Do Our Part and Be Bear Smart” for the safety of bears, our property and ourselves.

Don’t forget to post photos of bear sightings and check in with Bernadette Bear on Instagram @bearsmartbigsky and #bernadettebear. Help support Bernadette in her campaign to create a more bear-safe and bear-aware community in Big Sky.

Kris Inman is the community partnerships coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society and oversees the Bear Smart Big Sky campaign.

Joseph T. O'Connor is the previous Editor-in-Chief for EBS newspaper and Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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