Black bears are awake and getting active in Idaho

Take steps to avoid drawing bears into contact with humans.

Special to the Idaho StatesmanMay 2, 2013 

TRAVEL UST-ALASKASAFARI 3 SL

Despite their fearsome reputation, black bears are typically shy and much smaller than people think.

MCCLATCHY FILE PHOTO

Bear populations are healthy and widespread in Southwest Idaho, but that doesn't mean it's all good for black bears.

Idaho has around 20,000 bears, and they inhabit over 30,000 square miles in and around the Snake River plain, but droughts have been tough for bears.

Idaho Fish and Game has been monitoring bears in the Boise River watershed by visiting their dens during winter.

Females (or sows as they are called) were scored for body conditions using a scale of one through five, with one being the worst and five is peak condition.

An average score of 2 was given in 2011, 3.3 in 2012, and then back to 2 in 2013. Biologists says dry conditions make food harder for bears to find.

During that period, 22 denning females were visited by Fish and Game biologists. Data was collected to study den characteristics, reproductive rates and winter conditions of females and young.

Of those bears, 20 were of reproductive age, but only seven had young. The average litter size during the last three years was 1.4.

Sows mate in June or July, but the egg does not implant until December. Cubs are usually born in January or February.

Newborn cubs weigh only 8 ounces, but by their first year, females will grow to 30 or 50 pounds, and males can weigh between 50 and 70 pounds.

Once mature, females weigh 120 to 150 pounds on average, and their male counterparts will average between 240 and 280 pounds.

Typically, bears enter their dens in October or November and leave in March or April.

Males will leave before females, and females with young will leave latest of all.

This year, bears emerged from their dens earlier than usual. As they become active, it's important to not lure them into contact with people by leaving garbage, pet food and other bear attractants.

"We've already had a series of bear incidents in the Shadow Valley area," F&G's conservation educator Evin Oneale said.

"All bears are opportunists; their whole life revolves around food. They remember every single location where they receive a food reward, and if they get one from your residence, or your neighbor's residence, they will be back for more," he said.

He added the end result is always the same - a dead bear.

Encounters between humans and bears are also more likely in the fall when bears are fattening up for winter.

Bears do not hibernate, but they do have the ability to lower their heart rate considerably and slow their metabolism. They can awaken very quickly if needed.

They live off their body fat and do not lose much muscle mass or bone density during denning.

Bears are well adapted to their environment, and despite their ferocious reputation, they're actually a shy animal that feeds more on plants than other animals.

They rely on acute hearing and an advanced sense of smell to locate food and avoid danger.

They see as well, perhaps even better, than humans. They're reputation for poor eye sight may be because they see moving objects much better than stationary ones. If you're standing still, a bear may not detect you.

Bears also have good night vision, but typically prefer to forage during the day.

Unlike many other large mammals that are color blind, bears can distinguish colors, and it helps them find berries and other sources of food.

For the most part, bears avoid human contact and will hide from noise. Being black furred, or possibly a brown or "cinnamon" phase, their color has its advantages because they can blend into the shadows when the need arises.

Mark Krepps is a freelance writer, author and blogger.

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