Recent bear activity, although not on Forest Service public lands, is a good reminder for folks visiting Alaska’s National Forests to keep bear safety in mind, even if it is winter and cold outside.

Reese ‘Brand’ Phillips is the regional Wildlife Program Lead in the Forest Service Alaska Region. He said bear activity in winter is rare, but not surprising. “Bear hibernation is not true hibernation, it’s torpor. Think of it as light sleep which can be disturbed,” shared Phillips. “Remember that bear activity can happen anytime, so we need to readjust how we think and recreate in the winter.”

Phillips advised, “some people may have the impression that when it’s winter and snow is on the ground, bears are not a problem and you don’t have to follow your bear-aware protocols.” Phillips added, “while that may more or less be true, you need to be aware that bears can be around any time of the year.”

Phillips said there are several driving factors for when bears start denning and when they emerge from their dens in the spring. “Weather, temperature, and food resources have an impact on bears’ hibernating activities,” he shared. “If it was bad berry year or the salmon runs were bad, the bears may go into their dens early, but then again, if they did not put on enough body fat, they may come out of hibernation early as well.”

Phillips said that some research indicates that as the climate changes and we see warmer temperatures, the timing of denning and hibernation is changing too.

Here are some of Phillip’s tips for winter visitors to the Chugach and Tongass National Forests:

  • Continue to carry bear spray; keep it readily available.
  • Keep dogs on a leash. If off a leash, dogs may encounter a bear and bring it back to their human.
  • Travel in groups, when possible. 
  • Don’t surprise bears. In situations where bears might not easily hear, see, or smell you in advance, make your presence known. Your voice can be your best tool for this!
  • Continue to keep your trash bins secured, store pet food inside, and use bird feeders properly, even in the winter.
  • Remember that we need to protect the bears too. 

“We are living on the edge of where the bears live and forage,” Phillips concluded. “And when we recreate, we are basically knocking on the doors of their homes.” 

Dr. Reese ‘Brand’ Phillips is a 30-year Wildlife Biologist who enjoys the outdoors and is always happy to talk about all kinds of wildlife – including bears.

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