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Sleepy bears wake up to start another year

Photo provided by John Marriott (

Photo provided by John Marriott

(For more amazing images, check out John’s website is:

As the snow begins to melt and the days get longer, grizzly bears in North America are waking up from hibernation and coming out of their dens. This time of year always makes me reflect a little on how amazing grizzly bears are.

The magic of hibernation

Grizzly bears are true hibernators. They don’t eat, drink, urinate, or defecate during hibernation.  Even though a grizzly bear can be woken up (by loud noise or something like that), they most often sleep straight through from November to March. A grizzly bear has approximately 7 months to eat all of the nutrients it requires for 12 months, and that is why food is such an important motivator for bears. They really do have to be eating almost all of the time; waking up from hibernation healthy is entirely dependent on how much weight they can gain during the summer and fall.

Hibernation fascinates me. It’s truly incredible for an animal the size of grizzly bear to slow down its body metabolism to such a rate that it can live off of fat reserves for 5 months. I don’t like winter either, but these bears are really on to something! Many people assume that bears hibernate because of the cold weather, but it’s really all about food. There’s not a lot to eat in winter, so the bears just hibernate through it.

Female grizzly bears actually give birth in the den. Cubs are born in late January, and the female doesn’t even wake up for that! The cubs are born weighing around 2 pounds and blindly find their way to a teat where they suckle for two months. When the female wakes up in March, she’s got one to three little muffins to accompany her down the mountain slopes.

This video clip has some great footage of a grizzly bear in her den.

The world post-hibernation

The first bears start to come out of their dens in March. Male bears come out of their dens first, then lone adult females and subadult bears, females with cubs exit their dens last sometimes not coming out until April. A grizzly bear doesn’t wake up and immediately head out on a feeding rampage. After hibernating and living with such a slow metabolism for 5 months, it can take a couple of weeks for a bear “wake up” fully and get all of their body functions back up to normal speed. Bears who have just come out of hibernation are slow and look like I do on a Monday morning after a weekend away – tired. They head out looking for food, but nothing happens too quickly for the first couple of weeks.

A grizzly bear wakes up slowly. Photo by John Marriott (

A grizzly bear wakes up slowly. Photo by John Marriott. Check out John’s blog:

In March, grizzly bears are still waking up to snow. Dens are usually in higher elevations, so bears must head down to the lower elevations where food is hopefully starting to grow. This is always an interesting time for bears and people alike. Human communities are usually in the lower elevations too and keeping a clean community free from potential bear food is just as important in the spring as it is in the fall. Communities, like Canmore, that live in bear habitat have bear-proof garbage bins and by-laws against bird feeders in an effort to keep bears out of town.

Eventually though, spring does come to the mountains, and food begins to blossom everywhere. By this time, all bears are awake and active and hungry. They get a few weeks of feasting on lush spring green plants before the mating season begins.

Back in Canada just in time

As bears have started to come out of hibernation and there are more and more sightings in Banff National Park, I have returned to my Canmore home to get ready for the upcoming field season. I am very excited about the summer that lay ahead, but before I can head out into the woods and start collecting data, I have to get some things ready.

There’s a lot of paperwork involved with a PhD research project. I have submitted and had accepted a field work risk assessment from the University. I’ve submitted a Human Ethics research application to my University to make sure the visitor survey that’s part of my research meets all human ethics requirements. Later this week, I’ll be submitting a Research Permit Application to Parks Canada to get permission to conduct research in the National Parks. There’s a lot of paper and forms in my life right now.

Then, I’ll have to purchase the field equipment, mostly remote cameras. Special thank you to the Juniper Hotel in Banff who just donated $100 to the research effort. That brings the total of community contributions to $2,600, which will help buy around 10 remote cameras! I’ve got some other funding from the University to buy a few more cameras and hopefully end up with about 50 cameras out there on hiking trails this summer.

I also have to purchase some field equipment for volunteers helping me out – a day pack, first aid kit etc. Special thank you to Mountain Equipment Co-op for donating a $200 gift certificate to help with these costs! Again, I am blown away by the generosity of this community and feel so blessed to be a part of it.

An exciting field season lay ahead and I can’t wait to get out there… once all the paperwork is signed.

What kind of Alberta are bears waking up to?

Every year at this time, I wonder what kind of Alberta our grizzly bears are waking up to. Grizzly bears are a threatened species and I often think this time of year is a good opportunity to reflect on what we, as a society, have done to help recover grizzly bears. Are they waking up to a safer, more welcoming Alberta? I hope so. Truth is, the power for that to happen sits with all of us as individuals. What will you do to promote grizzly bear recovery this year and make sure the Alberta of 2013 is better than the Alberta of 2012 for grizzly bears as they emerge for another year in the mountains and foothills?

I will do my best to capture their good side on camera and then tell you all about it!

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