Understanding one of our larger Northwoods neighbors
BY THE MASKED BIOLOGIST
Special to the Star Journal
We are currently in the time of year when bears are very active. We have momma bears with cubs moving about. The cubs will stay with their mother for another 12 months. This unfortunately can lead to situations that turn out badly for people or for the bears. In recent weeks, I heard a report of a bird survey worker who was bitten by a sow (female bear) who was acting instinctively, trying to protect her cubs. I also heard from Wild Instincts that they ended up with three orphaned cubs at their facility after their mother was shot and killed. Typically, if a cub can stay with its mother at least until Labor Day or so, it has at least a fair chance of survival. However, bears normally invest a significant amount of time and effort raising their cubs compared to many other woodland animals.
Bears are born in the den, usually early February, and they weigh about a pound. Typically, there are two cubs, but up to four have been seen and photographed on a regular basis. The cubs nurse from their mother until after they emerge from the den and have learned to forage for their own food. They follow her everywhere, learning all of life’s lessons; they even hibernate with her their first winter. When they get to their second June, at about 16 months, young bears are run off by their mothers so they are able to breed and start the cycle again. Consequently, female bears, or sows, breed and give birth every other year. This means every June, we get a flush of yearling bears that have been run off by their mothers are out exploring and looking for new territories to establish. Basically, they are sort of teenagers; these bears get into trouble hanging around homes, eating bird seed, garbage, handouts, whatever they can beg or steal. Many of our nuisance bear calls this time of year are yearling bears.
A sow bear will set up a territory of about ten square miles, in which she will not tolerate other female bears. A boar (or male) bear will set up a territory of about thirty square miles, but will not defend it as aggressively as a female might. This time of year is also the peak of the breeding season. During this time, bears can be more vocal, more aggressive, and are often less afraid of humans. Bears have earned a reputation that makes people fearful; some of it deserved, some not. Bears have an amazing sense of smell, but terrible eyesight.
If they smell something that concerns them, they will try to get a better look, standing on their hind legs to get a better angle. This can be unsettling if you are the “something” the bear is studying. If a bear feels threatened or trapped, it may bluff charge you, running forward and stopping abruptly. It may swat dirt at you with its paw. It may clack its jaw and make some pretty scary vocalizations. This all means it is afraid of you, and is trying to frighten you away. Remember, if you see a bear, give it space, make sure it sees you, and do not block its escape route. They usually do not want an encounter with you.
Black bears are amazing creatures. Even though I am out in the field routinely, it is uncommon for me to encounter a bear; I usually have occasion to see a few every year, especially in early summer. I always give them a wide berth, and treat them with respect.
The Northwoods are big enough for all of us if we just respect each other’s space.
The Masked Biologist earned a Bachelor of Science degree from a university with a highly regarded wildlife biology program. His work in natural resource agencies across the country provided opportunities to gain experience with a variety of common and rare fish, plant and wildlife species. Follow The Masked Biologist on Facebook. Email questions to MaskedBiologist@charter.net.