Bears Emerging Early During Warm Winter

Norfolk is known as the Icebox of Connecticut, but this winter has felt more like March. March is when bears begin to emerge from their winter dens, but this year the shaggy bruins have been rushing the season, making their presence known in early February.

One South Norfolk resident recently found footprints in the snow that pointed to a bear as the culprit behind her ruined bird feeder. 

But is this normal? Has the warm winter thrown off their sleep cycle, and can they thrive if they emerge before there is adequate food?

Don’t worry, says Melissa Ruszczyk, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “When they go into torpor, their bodies just slow down, their metabolism and breathing slow, and their body temperature drops. They are fully capable of living off their fat reserves for four to six months.”  

Prior to going into torpor, bears enter hyperphagia, increasing feeding activity to fatten up. “They can require up to 20,000 calories a day,” said Ruszczyk. Those calories are supplied by foods such as acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts and black walnuts. “They eat the heavy fats and pack on a lot of weight,” she said. 

Fat and happy, they look around for a den, which may be a recess in rocks, a slash pile or a nest created at the base of a tree. They may even choose to den under a deck or shed if there is a ready supply of food nearby.   

Ruszczyk said their bodies become highly efficient factories producing their own nutrients. 

“True hibernators wake up every couple of days for water and have different things they collect and keep in their dens. But a bear can lie there and live off its fat. It doesn’t defecate or urinate—they recycle waste as proteins. There’s almost no muscle atrophy and they can get up at the snap of twig and run if they need to,” she explained.

Getting up for a snack does not mean they will want to stay up. Such behavior may be more common where there is the hope of human-related food, she reported, but in more rural areas a couple of 50- or 60-degree days may not cause them to stir.

Females are more likely to remain in their dens because their babies are born in January, and they will not leave them. “They probably won’t come out until late March or early April because the cubs can’t keep up with mom. She might move them a couple of yards because she’s hungry, but she won’t leave them until they can climb a tree.” 

So, does a bear who has put in a restless winter feel grumpy in the spring? Ruszczyk said that bears have acclimated to human society and are unlikely to launch an unprovoked attack. “Bears view people differently than dogs,” she said. “Dogs are a concern. We have reports of people saying their dog treed a bear and they think it’s funny. It’s not. You were lucky your dog wasn’t hurt or killed. Dogs are protectors and they will rush a bear.”

Bears living near neighborhoods do not generally fear humans. ““That’s not to say they couldn’t attack a human, but they are becoming habituated,” said Ruszczyk. “They have a good sense of hearing and smell and, generally, they are fully capable of getting away. They usually don’t have a reason to fear us.”

Habituation is “not good for our bears or good for the public,” she said, adding that people should be alert for warning signs that a bear is becoming annoyed. “She might sit at the base of a tree and make huffing noises and slap the ground,” Ruszczyk said. “I would think anyone would know that is a warning.”

Ruszczyk is not an advocate of feeding wildlife at any time. The vast majority of bear conflicts result from improperly stored trash or bird feeders. To help restrain bird feeding, there is a statewide ban on intentionally feeding dangerous wildlife and nine Connecticut towns have ordinances forbidding behavior that attracts bears.

The Connecticut bear population is heaviest in western Connecticut, but 165 out of 169 towns reported sightings in 2023. At present, there is plenty of natural forage for bears in western Connecticut but, because the population is larger here, there are more frequent and closer conflicts between humans and bears—including 35 home entries in 2023.

“There are monetary issues with home entries,” Ruszczyk said. “Often there is food loss and the cost of cleaning up. I would say we have biological carrying capacity in Litchfield County, but we have reached our cultural carrying capacity and we could sustain a hunt. Hunting is a piece of the puzzle, but it isn’t the whole thing. It’s about managing people, too.”

Hunting has been weighed by the state legislature, but to date, the only provision is for the removal of nuisance bears. DEEP launched Be Bear Aware last year, a campaign using billboards and digital media messages to reduce conflicts by addressing food habituation. As bears begin to emerge from hibernation, the Be Bear Aware will ramp up again.

—Newsletter Editor

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