Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care preps bears for hibernation
Special to The Union
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — With winter officially here, Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care has begun preparing some of their bears for hibernation.
Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care is a nonprofit that helps rescue, rehabilitate and release wild animals in need. They have many animals they care for, but among them are eight bears.
Six of those bears — Wildwood, Lucinda, Eloise, Andy, Sequoia, and Jamison — are fat and healthy enough to go into hibernation. Peyton and Quincy are both recovering from injuries and aren’t quite fat enough to hibernate, so Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care will keep them awake and feed them throughout the winter.
To simulate hibernation, Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care will slowly start feeding them less and less until the bears eventually go into their den in their enclosure.
“(Hibernation) is a natural thing,” Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care animal care director Denise Upton said. “I mean, the first-year cubs, sometimes they don’t really get it, they remind me of little kids trying to make them go to bed. We’ll get three of them down and there’s always one that stays up longer and just doesn’t want to do it. And eventually they all go to sleep because there’s nothing to eat and there’s nothing to do and it is cold.”
Bears hibernate due to lack of food. For bears who have a year-round food source, they don’t necessarily need to hibernate.
“Sometimes they don’t hibernate in Tahoe because people don’t secure their trash, or leave bird feeders out or just directly feed them, which is illegal,” said Ann Bryant, BEAR League executive director.
Bears like to find somewhere enclosed, warm, safe and comfortable to hibernate. In Tahoe, a lot of times that’s under people’s houses.
Bryant said over the last 20 years the league has been getting more calls about bears under houses.
“When we started receiving calls about 20 years ago, we would get one or two a week, now we’re getting five or six a day,” Bryant said.
The BEAR League will go out to the home to wake the bear and shoo them out.
“I feel like a criminal waking them up during their hibernation cycle,” said Bryant.
Bears don’t hibernate in the true sense of the word. While they do slow their breathing a little and stop eating and defecating, they can still wake up and go back to sleep, unlike squirrels or groundhogs.
While it is annoying for the bears to be woken up, they can find somewhere to hibernate and fall back asleep.
However, while lack of food is the main reason for hibernating, the birthing period for bears is also during hibernation.
Bears mate in July, but female bears have delayed implantation, so the egg won’t gestate until, or if, the bear is fat and healthy enough, which starts in November.
The egg reaches maturity after 63 days, so the cubs are all born in mid-January to February. During that time, it is illegal to move the bears.
Even in November, Bryant doesn’t like to move the female bears in case they are pregnant. When the BEAR league responds to calls, they will check the age and gender of the bear and in some cases, they can tell by the nest if the bear is preparing for cubs. Moving them during pregnancy can cause the bear to miscarry.
Bryant reiterates that the best way to avoid any of this is to secure crawl spaces with a sturdy door before winter hits.
“It’s part of owning a house in bear country, you have to think about these kinds of things,” Bryant said.
Bryant also said that if the bears are not in danger of damaging any gas lines or insulation and the homeowners feel comfortable, they can leave the bears down there. But, if a mom has cubs the family must let the bears stay for several months until the cubs are big enough to leave.
For Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, there is another benefit in hibernating the bears. They work with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to determine when and where the bears are released into the wild.
“What happens is that Fish and Wildlife finds a suitable place for them out away from the city and away from trouble and people and they make artificial dens for these bears,” Upton said. “While they’re sleeping… they sneak in and they dart them and knock them out. And then they transport them up to these artificial dens and put them inside and they kind of close up the door with some branches and stuff, and they walk away.”
Upton said the bears will usually come to and leave the den, look around then go back in and fall back asleep.
Fish and Wildlife will monitor the bears to make sure there is enough food at that location for the bears to come out of hibernation.
Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care also has a chipmunk and a Douglas squirrel they are hibernating for the winter.
Laney Griffo is a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of The Union.
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