Winter Sleepyhead

Interesting facts about black bears

The Black Bear

Here in the Great Lakes Bay Region, when we think of black bears, we imagine two tracks lined with cedar trees in the Upper Peninsula or raspberry bushes next to a babbling creek somewhere north of Clare. We don’t really think about our wooded river banks and nearby natural spaces as potential homes for Michigan’s largest carnivore. And yet, they are quietly present in this region, only occasionally spotted carrying on with their lives and getting ready for their long winter sleep.

This time of year, black bears are in the home stretch of preparing for the winter months ahead. Eating acorns, beach nuts, hickory and hazelnuts throughout the fall, they work to pack on the pounds so they can sleep through the season when food is scarce. Not true hibernators, bears go through torpor instead. They only lower their body temperature by about nine degrees, and are easily awakened and able to flee from danger. A pregnant female will wake up to give birth, nurse and care for her young during her long sleep. A winter bear den in Michigan could be a hollow beneath a fallen tree, a space under a mass of roots, tucked into rock crevices or beneath a large brush pile. They just need an out-of-the-way place to call their own while they take a few months off from feeding and walking through the woods.

Come spring, the bears will leave their den in search of snacks to fill their bellies. While technically carnivores, they are more accurately called omnivores, with more than half of their diet made up of plants. Wetlands become a favorite grazing place in spring, with abundant grasses, sedges and skunk cabbage. Later in the growing season, they will feast on raspberries, elderberries, mulberries and other sweet fruits. Bears fill in their diet with ants, bees and other insects, as well as the occasional mouse, woodchuck or frog. They are opportunistic feeders, taking advantage of easily obtained foods whenever possible.

In Michigan, black bears are nearly always black or very dark brown and sometimes have a white patch on their throats. They lead a solitary lifestyle unless the female is raising cubs, in which case they will stay with her until their second spring. Home ranges for black bears can range from 6,000 to 64,000 acres depending on the season and sex of the bear. Their home ranges may overlap, but unless it’s mating season, the bears keep to themselves. As you wander the woods and rivers, keep an eye out for scat, footprints or scratch marks on trees as evidence of their presence in the landscape.

 

Tips for Keeping Bears Safe

  • According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, there are approximately 3,000 black bears living in the Lower Peninsula. Active during dawn and dusk and shy by nature, most people will never encounter one, even if they hike or camp within a bear’s territory.
  • If you do encounter a bear, give it the opportunity to flee. Stand your ground, look big and make noise, then back away slowly. Most bears avoid human interaction whenever possible. Hiking in a group or making noise while you hike will alert a bear to your presence and give it the opportunity to flee before an encounter happens.
  • If a bear discovers your backyard bird feeder, outdoor pet food or garbage, put it away as soon as the bear leaves. They have excellent memories and will recheck the area (sometimes as much as a year or two later in the same season) to see if the food source has returned.
  • Few people will see an actual bear, but their characteristic footprint or large pile of scat may be a clue to their presence. With large territories, they are often on the move seeking food in different areas of their home range. If your home, favorite hiking trail or camping spot is in “bear country,” be sure to research additional measures you can take to protect bears from human interaction..

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