HOUGHTON - Mother Nature triggered the alarm clock on the U.P.'s black bear population a little early this year, and even in the Copper Country, the animals are emerging from their mid-winter lethargy.
But if one crosses your path, DNR officials said there's little to fear, because the animals are not typically threatening to humans.
"It's rare that you'll come on a bear that hasn't already detected that you're around," said Crystal Falls-based Department of Natural Resources and Environment wildlife biologist Doug Wagner.
A sow looks out of its den in Franklin Township last week. The bears were relocated from the area for their own protection by Department of Natural Resources and Environment personnel. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
Black bear cubs like this one stay with their mother for two winters before heading off on their own. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
He estimated that there are 12,000 bears residing in the Upper Peninsula. Most of them do their best to stay out of the way of humans, but last week, a sow and her cubs were relocated away from a den near Franklin Township for their own protection.
The landowner asked that the DNRE intervene.
Wagner said that it's unusual to relocate bears in this way, but that it was important to avoid any sort of interference. If a mother is disturbed, Wagner said it can become disoriented and lose track of its cubs. Though cubs can typically be fostered with mothers before they leave a den, after that point, it becomes a much bigger challenge.
"After they leave a den it's much more difficult because they recognize their cubs by sight and smell," Wagner said.
Black bears will choose unusual places to den, and Wagner said he's seen dens along roads, snowmobile trails and near homes. Many bear dens are not complicated enterprises and resemble above-ground nests or areas near fallen trees.
The lethargic season for bears extends from mid-October to mid-April, though this year's weather is triggering the up-and-at-'em instinct a little sooner than usual.
Wagner said the only problem that this different timeline may cause is putting smaller and more helpless cubs out in the open, where they could be exposed to predation.
"Those cubs when they come away from there have to be physically able to climb (trees)," Wagner said.
Many black bears don't go into a true state of hibernation, but do go into a heavily lethargic state to preserve body fat and heat when little food or warmth is available. Mothers tend to give birth in mid-January and suckle their helpless young in the den over the next few months.
Male bears, which do not participate in the young-rearing process, typically den solo and for somewhat shorter periods.
"Bears are solitary animals, so except for a sow denning with her yearling cubs or new cubs, you'll never find multiple animals in a den," Wagner said.
If there is a problem with the den, such as flooding, the sow will relocate from 20 to 200 yards away, but can be limited in that distance by how far her cubs are capable of traveling.
Bears are omnivores and once they emerge, Wagner said they'll look for the easiest food available.
"The first thing they're going to head for are some lowland hardwood areas that green up first," Wagner said.
Wagner said that if a person encounters a bear in the woods, the best thing to do is make it aware of a human presence through activities like speaking. Most bears are averse to human contact and will leave the area if they sense humans.
Brandon Veale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.