Though most of the snow has disappeared from the region’s black bear dens, wildlife biologists say the jury’s still out on whether an early spring will result in earlier-than-usual bear activity.
Last year’s bumper huckleberry crop sent most bears into hibernation with full bellies. It’s a tossup whether the mild temperatures will coax bears out of their dens, or whether their extra fat stores will prompt a longer snooze, said Wayne Wakkinen, a wildlife biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Wakkinen, who works in Bonners Ferry, said he’s heard secondhand reports of bear sightings but hasn’t seen any sign of the creatures yet this season. Hours of daylight play the leading role in when bears emerge from hibernation, but snowpack, temperature and body fat are factors as well.
“I’m not sure which is going to win,” Wakkinen said. “They’re probably better off to stay in the den, conserve their energy, and wait until true spring and green up.”
Bears lose about 30 percent of their body fat during hibernation. Most of the grasses and bulbs that provide spring forage for bears haven’t emerged yet. However, most low-elevation den sites have been clear of snow for a month.
“We’ll see at least some bears out earlier than normal,” Wakkinen predicted.
No bear sightings have been reported yet this year at the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, said Jan Rose, the refuge’s biological sciences technician. Meadows along the Kootenai River are a draw for black bears foraging for clover and young grasses, while the area’s small grizzly population scouts alpine meadows and avalanche chutes for glacier lily bulbs.
“Generally, earlier springs mean earlier bear activity,” Rose said.
At the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, however, the bet is that well-fed bears will linger in their dens until the daylight lengthens. At this time, nothing indicates that Eastern Washington’s black bear population is stirring earlier than usual, said Madonna Luers, a department spokeswoman.
Males typically emerge first from their dens, followed by single females. Mothers of cubs are the last to leave the den, and that doesn’t happen until mid- to late April, Luers said.