Bears In Hibernation Offer Biologists An Opportunity To Monitor The Population
Bear and human interaction have been more frequent than normal this past year. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources recently issued a notice letting people know that even though they are hibernating right now, people in the back country should still be bear aware.
DWR experts talk about bear biology and what outdoor recreationists should know about human and bear contact.
Public Information Officer with the DWR Faith Heaton Jolley says they put out the notice because the number of bear incidents have doubled this year. She says it may be due to a drought year in 2018 and the cold late spring in 2019. She says they came out of hibernation very hungry last spring. She says many people don’t know that bears populate every region in the state of Utah. They keep track of bear data both from collaring and incident reports.
“Then also, it’s just good for us to have kind of a better idea on where there are, these kind of you know, we call them hotspots. Kind of these areas that do have more bear incidents and conflicts between people and bears. So that we can kind of be proactive in getting that word out so people are aware there’s bears in the area that they can take the necessary steps to prevent any conflicts.”
They start to hibernate in early November and by December, the majority are dug in deep into the hillsides in remote areas in the back country. Biologists use GPS to track bears that have been collared and they’ll go into the dens in February. Utah DWR Bear Biologist Darren DeBloise says cubs will spend two winters in the den with their mother.
“So, we’ll go out and find the den site and the bears are still hibernating, so they’re lethargic. Bears are, you know, they're not dead asleep. If you go in and disturb them, they can wake up and move but they're groggy. So we'll go in the den, use a tranquilizer dart to put mom chemically asleep, so she, you know is not going to be a danger to us. And the cubs are small enough that they can just be handled. We pull them out and measure them and weigh them so we can get estimate on about how long they've been in there.”
DeBloise says it’s very difficult to count bears but he thinks the adult population in Utah is around 3000.
“It can be quite long. It probably averages probably 8 to 10 years in Utah. It's probably a little lower for males than for females. But we've had female bears that we've collared, and we go visit their dens and look at reproduction to look and see if they have cubs, that have been 25-30 years old. So, they can actually live quite a long time.
DeBloise says bears are slow reproducers, breeding in mid-summer. However, if food sources are not good in the fall, the fertilized egg won’t implant. He says it’s a natural population mechanism.
“They like to eat berries and acorns in the fall and if those crops for some reason, are not doing well, then they just won't have cubs that year that's why we visit these den sites and we can detect when they have these pulses of reproduction in good years based on whether there are cubs are in the den or not.”
Utah has a spring, summer and fall hunting season for bears but DeBloise says it’s tightly regulated. They allocate hunting permits based on female and aging population data collected in each region of the state. They typically allocate about 1000 permits and he says they harvest about 300 bears a year.
The DWR asks people to report incidences of human and bear contact. It helps them identify habitat issues and population trends.