The Wild Truth
By Winslow Umberger
Ask residents of Western North Carolina if they had a bear encounter last year and odds are they did. Food was scarce in parts of the mountains so more bears were seen ambling through neighborhoods searching for an easy meal. As fall temperatures fell, our fair-weather friends retreated back into the forest to settle in for a “long winter’s nap.”
All’s now quiet on the western front, so to speak. Justin McVey, district wildlife biologist for North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) explains why: “Bears are in their dens in a state of torpor, a deep sleep. It can be a busy time for pregnant females, however. January is about the time cubs are born and mom just hangs out in the den, nursing them. Male bears will also be denning, but, on a warm day, it is not uncommon to see one on the prowl.”
McVey is also part of a team of researchers exploring bears’ adaptability to changes in habitat as well as tracking movements, via radio collars, to determine where they are denning. While most envision bears overwintering in caves, they are far more resourceful. “The most common den in our neck of the woods is just a thick, brushy area,” says McVey. A toppled tree provides shelter either under its branches or in the crater of its upturned root ball. Surprisingly, 20 percent of bears overwinter in the hollows of decayed trees.
One local wildlife photographer, Steve Atkins of Fox Cove Photography, was fortunate enough to see such a tree retreat. He was “embedded” in a group of NCWRC field biologists searching for denning bears. Atkins was trying to capture images to illustrate the recently published children’s book, Backyard Bears by Asheville’s own Amy Cherrix. And what pictures he got! He watched in amazement as a female wildlife biologist deftly climbed a hollowed-out oak tree and darted a female slumbering with her cub. Before the tranquilizer took effect, the mother clambered out just feet from the scientist—a “money shot” for the book! When the tranquilizer took full effect, Atkins captured the action: the biologist extracting the cub from the darkened den and gently lowering it to her peers below. Once the cub was weighed, measured, and evaluated, it was reunited with its mother, who woke up minutes later none the wiser.
Denning is genetically ingrained in bears and is triggered by a drop in temperature and the absence of food. When it starts to warm up, they will emerge, including bear cubs sticking close to mother bears. Cubs are weaned around July. By September, they will weigh about 25 pounds and can survive on their own, although they typically remain with mothers for a year and a half.
With bears active again, the Commission will field plenty of calls concerning bear sightings. “This is to be expected,” says McVey. “We live in bear country, with about 8,000 black bears in WNC alone. (There are about 12-14,000 on the coast.) The most important thing is to live responsibly with bears by being responsible with trash and bird feeders in order to keep bears wild. We don’t want them to lose their fear of humans.”
What if the call is about an injured bear? “There is not much we can do,” says McVey. “Bears don’t respond well to treatment and rehabilitation. The good news is that bears are amazingly resilient and a lot of times don’t need our help.”
Conservation efforts since the 1970s have been successful in re-establishing bears in areas they used to call home. With more people calling this area home as well, human/bear interactions will increase. Peaceful co-existence is possible by being “bear wise.” Learn, at BearWise.org, how to ensure all encounters are safe for both bear and human alike.
Winslow Umberger is head of outreach for Appalachian Wild (AppalachianWild.org), a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization whose mission is to help injured and orphaned native wildlife and the licensed wildlife rehabilitators of WNC.