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On Sunday, January 12, Sugarbush Resort photographer John Atkinson captured a picture from the chairlift of a black bear rummaging in the woods, prompting questions as to how the unusually warm weather was affecting animals that would normally remain in hibernation during this time of year.
According to Mark Scott, director of wildlife at Vermont Fish & Wildlife, "We've actually had a couple of reports of bears out" over the past week, but there's no way to know for sure why they woke up from their deep sleep.
Most likely, the bears "have gotten disturbed in their den site," Scott said, explaining that this could happen during warm and cold weather alike due to the presence of nearby humans or to changes in the surrounding landscape. "It's more likely they'll wake up when we have a warm period," Scott said, but the bears' behavior "isn't very predictable."
What Scott does know, however, is that the bears "may wake up and wander about for a little while, but then they'll usually go back to their den—or to a new den," he said, explaining that there's very little for the bears to eat this time of year and that many of their body functions have closed down during hibernation.
According to PBS' NOVA science series, bears make their dens in burrows, caves, hollowed-out trees and rock crevices. The dens usually feature entrances just large enough for a bear to squeeze through with interior dimensions measuring 2½ to 5 feet wide and 2 to 3 feet high. Traditionally, bears' dens contain little to no insulation. Instead, bears rely on their thick coats and a low surface-area-to-mass ratio to keep them warm during the cold winter months.
It's more likely that the bear photographed at Sugarbush was male, Scott said, as the females are nursing their newborn cubs during this time of year and therefore are less likely to leave the den. According to NOVA, sometime in January, a pregnant black bear "wakes up long enough to give birth in the den to one or more cubs. She then slumbers anew, rousing herself every now and then to lick the cubs and otherwise tend to them. The cubs, meanwhile, do not hibernate but suckle their mother, safely warmed by her sparsely furred belly."
For wildlife lovers, last Sunday's sighting means that even though catching a glimpse of a bear during winter is relatively unlikely, it's not impossible and it's no cause for alarm.