Are Tennessee bears just weird? Don’t they know they are supposed to be sleeping?
It’s commonly thought that all black bears (both male and female) spend the entire winter sleeping in a dark cave, surviving off of a bunch of stored-up body fat.
But if that’s true, why do we see so many bears actively roaming alongside deer and elk around Cades Cove loop road in January and into late March?
Do bears hibernate in the Smoky Mountains?
The fact is that black bears in the Smoky Mountains, unlike some of their northern cousins, are not true hibernators at all.
The entire point of hibernation is to allow an animal to store energy when the temperature drops and natural food sources become more scarce.
During hibernation, an animal’s body temperature decreases, their breathing slows and their metabolic rate drops.
Well-known hibernators include skunks, bees, snakes, groundhogs, chipmunks and of course, bears.
So what makes bears in the Smoky Mountains different?
The simple answer is, it’s just too warm.
According to the National Park Service, black bears located in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park tend to choose a denning site – like hollow stumps, hollow trees or tree cavities – for shelter in the winter where they enjoy long periods of sleep and low to minimal activity.
But their body temperature does not always drop like a true hibernator, which allows them to wake for short periods of roaming during brief warming trends.
While winter often conjures images of beautiful snow-capped mountain landscapes, the truth is, it really doesn’t get that cold, nor stay that cold in East Tennessee.
Temperatures rarely even dip below freezing in the late evening hours with an annual average snowfall of only about 1-2 inches in the foothills.
So while you might see fewer black bears during the wintertime in the Smokies, don’t be too surprised if one wanders up behind you while on a video call with your family on Thanksgiving, which literally happened to me a couple of weeks ago. My family was cracking up as I backed away slowly.
Luckily, Mr. Bear didn’t seem too interested in joining the call after his brief cameo appearance.
Why bear cubs never hibernate
And here’s a fun trivia fact – newborn bear cubs don’t hibernate at all.
Pregnant mothers often give birth to their cubs during the winter months. The bear cubs sleep next to their mother and nurse until mom is ready to leave her den.
By the time the bear cubs emerge from their dens for the first time, they are generally about three months of age, weigh about 4-8 pounds (64-128 ounces) and are able to follow their mother around in search of food.
This is true even in colder climates where true hibernation takes place.
It’s also not unusual for mother bears to hibernate more lightly compared to other bears because of the need to occasionally wake and tend to their young. (A mother’s work is never easy!)
Do black bears ever alter their hibernation patterns?
Black bears can also change their hibernation patterns if they experience an unusually cold or an unusually hot winter.
In fact, according to this article, black bears around the country in places like Nevada are altering their normal hibernation habits due to unusual warming patterns and warming climates, causing some animals to skip hibernation altogether.
To put it quite simply, if the weather is warm enough, and food is plentiful, there’s simply no need to enter into any form of hibernation or long period of sleep.
But remember, don’t offer bears any human food (or access to garbage) here in the Smokies. They don’t need to rely on us for food.
Have you ever spotted a black bear during a winter vacation in the Smokies? Let us know in the comments!
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