Northern Michigan Outdoors: Come February, Northern Michigan’s black bears are snoozing away in their dens. But for new moms of the Ursus americanus variety it’s not as dormant in the hidey hole as you might imagine. During hibernation, momma bears give birth, nurse their young, keep the cubs clean and sweep the den of all that baby-bear poop. (Meanwhile, of course, dad bears are off alone somewhere snoring under a log.) Mark Boersen has been checking in on bear family dens for a decade in his role as wildlife biologist at the DNR’s Roscommon station. We asked him to share some of what he’s learned.
First, generally speaking, how are black bears doing in Northern Michigan?
The population is very healthy. It has been stable or slightly declining, but nothing to worry about. In the northern lower we have about 1,300 to 1,500 bears and probably 10 times that number in the U.P.
We understand your den project got its start with bear orphans?
Just about every year we have a bear sow that gets killed crossing a road or whatever, and the DNR ends up with the cubs. And zoos have all the bears they want. So some years ago we learned of a bear researcher in Pennsylvania who placed orphan cubs in dens with a sow who had cubs, and she accepted them. Luckily for us, bears can’t count, so as long as we could cover up the scent of the original mother, the sow would eventually get curious and lick the cub. Then it smelled like her, and she’d accept the additional cub.
So how do you find a mom?
We decided we’d radio-collar some sows so we’d have a candidate pool for when we had an orphan—we could find them in their dens in the winter. We’ve had five collared the last few years, but a hunter harvested one last season. We ask hunters not to shoot collared bears, but they don’t have legal protection.
Why do you choose February to replace the collars?
Generally our Februarys are cold and the bears are well settled into the dens. Also, the cubs are old enough that we can handle them without causing any problems. They are born in January, but they are hairless at birth and less than a pound, so it would be very unsafe to handle them then. By February, they are fully furred and it’s not a problem to stick them into somebody’s coat to keep them warm while we change the collar on the sow.
What about bears most amazes you?
Bears are incredibly intelligent animals. They are far more common than what people think, and the reason for that is they are just so good at not being seen. When they want to be quiet, they can move through the woods almost silently.
When do bears come out of their dens?
In mild years, some bears might come out in early April, but a mom with new cubs might not emerge until mid-May. By Labor Day the cubs are weaned, but they stay with the sow a second winter.