The bear that mauled a puppy in Dedham last week apparently was one of several forced from its den because January was unusually rainy, according to Maine bear experts.
The bears were flooded out of their winter hibernation spots, said Jennifer Vashon, the biologist who oversees the state’s bear program within the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Last week’s bear-human conflict was the first such weather-related encounter that Vashon can recall. But, she said, having more bears become active early in the year does not put Mainers at much of a risk of running into one of them.
The bear versus dog tangle likely occurred because the dog disturbed a young bear that had recently relocated near a busy roadway and hadn’t fallen back into a deep hibernation, Game Warden Shannon Fish said.
Vashon agreed that the scuffle was a “freak coincidence.”
“I don’t see any reason that the weather is going to cause an increase in encounters between bears and people,” she said.
Heavy flooding from rain occurred earlier than usual, Vashon said. But if early-winter flooding becomes the norm because of climate change, it’s bears that will have to adapt, not people. Bears would gradually become more likely to establish their dens on higher ground, she said.
Last week’s mauling occured when 29-year-old Dustin Gray and his puppy, Clover, unwittingly stumbled upon a bear den in the woods just off of Route 1A in Dedham. Gray said he fought the bear off. Clover is now recovering from puncture wounds.
Near the place the conflict occurred, Fish found a small cave that looked like it had briefly housed a small bear. That led him to conclude the bear had recently moved out of a flooded den.
The National Weather Service does not record rainfall totals for Dedham, but Bangor received 5.53 inches in January, nearly double the its average for the first month of the year. That rain, combined with snow melt, caused widespread flooding, according to NWS meteorologist Mark Bloomer.
Vashon’s colleague, biologist Randy Cross, checked on five dens in a research area affected by the flooding and found that the bears in four dens had already left, she said.
When their dens flood, bears don’t roam around looking for food — or people, whom they tend to shy away from. Instead, they try to find somewhere nearby to resume hibernation, she said.
But, usually, that happens in rainy March — not January. And Vashon said that early-winter flooding could endanger newborn bears.
Cubs are born in January and cannot easily withstand flooding because they are tiny, hairless and vulnerable, she said. But by March cubs are five-pound “furballs” better equipped to cope, she said.
Vashon won’t know until the spring, when the state checks its cub counts, if last month’s heavy rains cost the lives of any newborns, she said.
“But this one year, there’s probably no reason to be concerned,” she said.
Climate change has made January rains more common, a trend that is likely to continue, according to Sean Birkel, a University of Maine climatologist.
But, Vashon said, that just means mother bears will seek out higher ground.
“Bears learn,” she said.
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