Tuesday, February 20, 2024

NOTES FROM THE FALLEN TREE: Black Bears in Winter

Black bear. Photo by J. Correa-Kruegel.

Warren County is undoubtedly bear country. They are the largest mammal in New Jersey and have made a tremendous comeback from their low population numbers in the 1970s. Due to their increase in numbers, interactions with people are also increasing. It is important to know what to do should you encounter a black bear. 

If you encounter a black bear, you need to remain calm.

Unless you are near somewhere where you can seek refuge, do not turn your back and run from a black bear. This can instigate a chase reflex in the animal, plus, they can run up to 35 miles per hour.

A common misconception that we have seen in old cartoons is that you should play dead.

Black bears will actually eat dead things, so it’s encouraged to fight back. The best response to a black bear is to make yourself look large and make loud noises while backing away slowly- making sure the bear has an escape path. 

One myth about black bears is that they will hibernate.

According to Britannica, “a true hibernator spends most of the winter in a state close to death. The body temperature is close to 32 degrees F, the respiration is only a few breaths per minute and the heartbeat is so slow and gradual as to be barely perceptible.”

This time of year, during extreme weather conditions, black bears will “den-up” or go into a state of “torpor,” where their body temperature drops, and heart rate and respiration slows down but not as significantly as for hibernating animals.

Females will give birth in their dens, but no bear feces or urine has been found in a den as they will create an anal plug and recycle their urine in their body. Dens may consist of hollowed out trees, rock cavities or roots that have raised to create an underground hole. Sometimes they will make use of people’s porches or decks. 

Black bear fur on a pole where a bear scratched. Photo by J. Correa-Kruegel.

They will awaken easily during warm spells to search for their omnivorous diet of plants and small animals. 

If a bear has come into your yard because of food left out or made available to them, and steps are not taken to deter them, then it can put your whole neighborhood in danger, as well as the bear.

Bear tracks in snow. Photo by J. Correa-Kruegel.

Intentionally or unintentionally feeding bears can be a fine of up to $1,000.

Using bear-proof garbage containers or dipping an old rag in ammonia and tying it to your garbage can help deter bears. Also, taking in your bird feeders at night, even in the winter. This can prevent bears from wandering too close to your home. 

Jennifer Correa-Kruegel, Warren County Naturalist
Jennifer Correa-Kruegel, Warren County Naturalist

Jennifer has a Masters in Parks and Resource Management from Slippery Rock University. She worked as a Park Naturalist for Hunterdon County Park System from 2003-2006 and then at the NJSOC full-time from 2006 - 2020, starting as the Program Coordinator and evolving to an Environmental Educator. Jen is a New Jersey native and has lived in Warren County with her family since 2004. She is excited to be offering programs to this community she has grown to love.