Many believe that black bears hibernate, and that includes many biologists — one senior large carnivore specialist with the B.C. government gave further insight that bears foraging for food during winter are old or diseased bears in ill-health.
Black bears are not true hibernators like marmots or chipmunks and in many regions such as our own temperate climate bears are active all year round. Terms such as torpor or winter lethargy are being used to replace hibernation when describing black bear winter activity.
During a recent ski and snowshoe trip to Merry Widow Mountain, on our last day out, gliding below the sub-alpine on a gorgeous winter morning, we were nearing the transition zone of changing to snowshoes when a 5-6 year old bear dropped down from a 10-foot rock embankment to my left. His coat was sleek, with a excellent layer of winter fat, a bear in his prime.
I was in a bit of a dopey stupor, lulled by the warmth of the sun and the crisp, glittering snow blanket that enveloped us, and to have this bruin drop in on us made our day. We were in heaven.
What finally kicked me out of my stupor was the realization that the bear had stopped directly in my path. He was probably in as much of a winter stupor as myself, and it was evident that physical contact was imminent until I verbally wished him a pleasant day.
Like greased lightening, all four paws seeking traction in snow like spinning all-season tires, he scrambled down the face, snow flying in all directions as he voiced his disapproval in no uncertain terms.
This bear wasn’t sickly or old as many biologists would expect for a black bear active during winter months, and this bear wasn’t an anomaly — it was just one of a few hundred that I have observed during the winter months since the early nineties on the North Island, the majority of which were healthy.
Like bear behavior, you also have to consider regional seasonal activity to get an accurate picture, although some senior biologists prefer to toss a generalized winter blanket over the subject.
Of course, the whole hibernation issue brings us to the question, ‘Do bears defecate in the woods?’
During winter lethargy they do not, nor do they urinate. They are the ultimate green recycling machine.
The small amount of urine produced is reabsorbed into their kidneys, while their body fat is metabolized to produce the calories and water they need to survive. Through this process they are able to maintain their bone and muscle mass.
This is unlike true hibernators such as the chipmunk. The chipmunk lowers it’s body temperature to almost freezing and it’s heart rate from 350 beats per minute to as slow as 4 bpm. It also has to wake up every few weeks to eat and defecate.
The only connection bears do have to the chipmunk is that during the next few weeks sows will be giving birth to chipmunk-size cubs, which are blind and very lightly furred. They are not, however, formless bits of mush sculpted by their mother’s tongue as was once believed, which was responsible for the expression, ‘licked into shape’.
Unlike adult bears, cubs aren’t toilet trained and do defecate, and like any good mother they clean up after their young. And this is where recycling is taken to a whole new level, as the sow’s tongue is used as the pooper scooper.
Lawrence Woodall is a longtime naturalist who has spent much of his life in the outdoors.