Up early? Hibernation ends for bears at Alaska wildlife center

Spring is fast approaching, and Alaska's hibernating animals, from beavers to bears, will soon be roused from their winter slumbers. And while it's not time to pull out the bear spray just yet, the bruins at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) in Portage are already awake and moving around.

"We're kind of a precursor" to bears waking up in the wild, said Ethan Taylor, the sales and marketing director at the center. All five of their bears -- three brown bears and two black bears -- have been spotted with increasing regularity the last few weeks.

Brown bears named JB, Patron, and Hugo as well as black bears called Uli and Kuma begin to stir "when we start getting these nicer days and sunnier weather," Taylor said, noting the weather has been good in Portage lately.

But overall, we still have a few weeks before bears leave their dens to roam the wilds. Sean Farley, wildlife physiologist with the Department of Fish and Game, said that while some reports of bears on the Kenai have begun trickling in, "by and large, they're not going to be out for another month."

Farley said that most bears become active in March and April, and females with cubs usually remain in their dens until sometime in May. Upon waking, bears hang around their den for a couple of days, and mama bears stay put the longest.

Coming out of hibernation, bears are groggy and slow moving. Overall, their state of hibernation is not as extreme as some Alaska animals. During hibernation, bears are "kind of like a dog in deep sleep," Farley said. Their body temperatures drop just 5 or 10 degrees. That's far warmer than Arctic ground squirrels, whose body temperatures can plummet to near-freezing in their deep hibernation, or wood frogs, which freeze solid. Bears get up and reposition themselves during hibernation, and sometimes even step outside their den for a few hours.

"If you were to stick your head in a bear den they'll look right back at you," Farley said. Good to know.

Once they come out of hibernation, all bears are hungry. They've lost up to 25 percent of their body weight during winter, virtually all of it fatty tissue. They lose very little muscle mass during that time, for reasons not fully understood. "We know bears can recycle amino acids," the building blocks of proteins, Farley said, but still, "the exact reason escapes us."

The hungry bears at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center were treated to some tasty grub as soon as they were active again -- Salmon fillets. People cleaning out their freezers often donate meat to AWCC, intern Sarah Howard said. Sometimes they receive meat from road-kill moose. And if there is no salmon or moose, the bears receive a high-protein meal similar to dog food.

But in the wild, it's slim pickings for bears looking for food before spring's green-up. Until moose cows drop their calves, options include scavenging for carrion and eating catkins off the trees. It's "not uncommon to see black bears up trees eating the tips and whatnot," Farley said.

Once the bears are out of their dens for the summer, it's important to be aware of their presence. Not afraid, Farley noted, but aware. Taking precautions such as securing your garbage and belongings is also good protocol.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Laurel Andrews

Laurel Andrews was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in October 2018.