WINDSOR COUNTY, Vt. — As climate change leads to warmer winters and earlier springs, state officials say that bears are not getting the deep sleep they spend the later part of each year bulking up for by foraging for nuts and apples.
Generally, bears spend the fall season stockpiling their stomachs with food for their winter low level hibernation. But the recent lack of snow has given them reasons to be restless this winter.
According to a 2017 study published in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Applied Ecology, for every one degree Celsius that minimum temperatures increase during the winter season, bears hibernate for six fewer days. And although February has already seen large amounts of snowfall over the Northeast region, last month was the hottest January on record, with average temperatures exceeding 141 years of data supplied by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“It’s been one of the milder winters for most of the state than what we’ve had on record,” said Forrest Hammond, a bear biologist in the state of Vermont. “Coupled with the fact that last fall there was an abundance of food for bears. There were a lot of nuts and there’s access even if there is snow on the ground. They can dig through the snow and get it.”
The lack of snow and untypical spans of higher-than-normal temperatures throughout January has seen increased pedestrians and hikers with dogs, according to Hammond.
“There’ve been other incidents that occurred several times as well with people taking advantage of the lack of snow coverage by walking out in the woods with their dogs. And in several cases dogs have scared the bears out of their dens,” he said.
Hammond said there are precautions people can take. For instance, he encourages tidy yards, low levels of human-to-bear contact and staying clear of known bear dens completely.
“We ask people if you do accidentally scare a bear from the den to not return to the den,” Hammond advised. “A lot of people want to take their friends to go back and see the bear again or just see if the bear came back or to set a game camera out so they can get pictures of the bear. Well, what happens is a lot of times the bear that is scared out of its den once will return fairly quickly to the den, but if they’re scared two or three times they just abandon the den. This is especially the case with a female when it has newborn cubs.”
The bear biologist also said the level of bear reports has been unusually high this season.
“I think we’ve had nearly nearly two dozen reports this winter. People call in about having bears come and pull down their bird feeders, cause other damage or just come around their houses. So people were concerned,” he said. “You know, a couple dozen calls doesn’t doesn’t seem to be very much but it is during this time of year. Usually we don’t get any reports at all.”
Hammond said the bulk of the reports were in southern Vermont where there has been less snowfall.
“I think it occurs the most and areas where we have the least amount of snow in. So especially southern Vermont seems to have had less snow than the remainder of the state,” he said. “So yes, Windsor, Windham, Rutland and Bennington counties probably make up the bulk of where most of those reports are from.”
The protocol for handling the bear population is a delicate balance of prudent wisdom and careful evaluation of individual circumstances.
“Every report that we get in we evaluate first for risk because human safety we feel comes first. And so we’ll look closely at the bears’ behavior for actually something that could cause a safety issue for people. Normally that’s not the case. Normally,” he said. “It’s just a bird feeder being pulled down or someone having a concern to the bear walk to the yard or something like that. And so most of the cases we simply give advice. We ask people to take down your bird feeder and not feed the birds for a while too.”
Hammond did say that in rare cases Vermont Fish and Wildlife will take further action.
“If a bear is causing excessive damage or acting in a way that we think might affect somebody’s safety we contact the nearest game warden to that residence and we’ll have him check out the situation and will act accordingly,” Hammond said. “Sometimes it’s still a matter of getting the people just to clean up the garbage or for the birdseed that’s bringing the bear head. But if it’s actually quite a bit of damage, if it’s bad enough, we might actually destroy the animal just so that someone doesn’t get injured badly.”
This season has been a sort of trifecta of occurrences, with increased open ground and a rise in human activity. This combination, according to Hammond, has created elevated noise levels which make it harder for bears to sleep.
“The majority of the bears don’t do this, but it seems like a lot of them and it is usually because one does start coming into a neighborhood might check every backyard the course of a night. So you might have five or six people, you know, complain about it. And it’s just one bear,” he said.
Once a bear’s den is disturbed, especially more than once, the rabble rousing begins.
“Once a bear is disturbed from its den it might not try to establish another den if you get warmer temperatures and there’s not much snow,” according to Hammond. “It may set out searching for food and if it’s been successful in the past getting food from someone’s backyard and probably going to go back there and check that out again.”
It is the actual depth of the snow that determines a bears hibernation level as it acts as a noise insulator as well as a thick physical barrier around their dens.
“The reason that bears go to den is because they have a tough time finding food once there is abundant snow cover and bears are not efficient predators,” Hammond explained. “So they rely quite a bit on the fall getting wild apples and acorns and beech nuts. When there is snow cover they can’t get to the food on the ground so they just kind of give up and find a place crawl under log.”
Hammond said mild winters can also eventually have an effect on populations.
“Their hibernation is not a true hibernation. It’s just a deep sleep and they’ll cycle in and out of a deep sleep and they can do that for up to five months with no eating or drinking. It’s pretty amazing that they could do that. Yeah, but in a mild winter where we don’t have a lot of snow cover and Coyotes can take Cubs and kill juvenile bears,” Hammond said.
Rainfall also affects the quality of hibernation significantly which was excessively present throughout the month of January.
“If you get a lot of rain events often the rain is going directly onto the bear trying to sleep. And so it’s uncomfortable,” he said.
While there are numerous factors — as previously laid out — one can take away this easily distilled phrase: deep snow equals happy sleeping bears.
“So what we found is if you have a lot of deep snow the bears are very comfortable. They spend most of the time indeed asleep. We know that from putting on motion sensors on bears where we did research projects,” he said. “So if you find the bear pretty active inside its den the motion sensor will be active most all winter long when there’s not a deep-cover snow. So the bears do not like winters that are open like this one.”