A Bear's Eye View: Insight on American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) Hibernation and Foraging Ecology in Virginia's Central Appalachian Mountains

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Virginia Tech


Following mass agricultural expansion and deforestation in the late 1800s and early 1900s, American black bear populations (Ursus americanus, hereafter black bear) were low across most of Virginia. The Department of Wildlife Resources (VADWR) and the United States Forest Service worked to rebuild wildlife habitat in the state, leading to recovery of bears. While some aspects of black bear hibernation and foraging ecology have been studied, there remain knowledge gaps on key aspects of black bear biology. Hibernation behavior, for example, is understudied with most knowledge stemming from post-hibernation emergence studies. We used a unique dataset with continuous monitoring of mother bears and their cubs from Virginia Tech's Black Bear Research Center in 2015-2016, to better understand hibernation ecology, mother-cub dynamics, and biological-foster cub dynamics. We found that increased black bear activity levels were driven by both higher temperature and photoperiod, but the onset of hibernation was primarily driven by only temperature. Temperature is projected to rise in VA and rising temperatures regionally could be responsible for increased active behaviors in bears, which could lead to increased human-black bear interactions on the landscape, especially during hibernation onset. We also found that mother bears spend similar amounts of time with biological and foster cubs. Biological cubs did not show more dominance behaviors toward fosters than biological siblings, which we also observed with foster, where they did not continuously display these behaviors towards biological cubs. These results are promising for orphan cub fostering programs in VA and other states and indicate that foster cub litter integration can be successful. Foraging ecology also is challenging to study in black bears because direct observation is generally not possible due to their cryptic nature, closed habitat, or potential danger in observing. We used a dataset from camera collars deployed on 15 bears (8 males, 7 females) in Bath County Virginia in 2018 and 2019 to better understand diet seasonality and to determine habitat and environmental drivers of black bear foraging patterns, particularly on white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and invasive plant species. We identified 178 unique diet items to family, genus, or species in videos, much higher numbers than previously reported in the literature, and we found high diet overlap between sexes. Diet composition was primarily influenced by season with higher levels of consumption of herbaceous soft mast in spring, fruit and seed soft mast in summer, and hard mast in fall. Females exhibited more hunting events on deer fawns in spring than males, but males and females consumed similar numbers (28 vs. 24, respectively) via hunting and scavenging combined. Males consumed anthropogenic foods more often than females, particularly when closer to human settlements and males more commonly consumed invasive plant species in spring while females more often consumed insect in spring invasive species in summer. Our results highlight strong seasonally- and subtle sex-mediated differences in black bear diets. We provide information on drivers of diet choices by bears, as well as identify where foraging hotspots on species of interest occur, providing information useful to VADWR in managing increased human-wildlife interactions (and mitigating potential for negative interactions), predator-prey relations, and invasive species spread across the landscape.



American black bear, foraging ecology, hibernation ecology, diet composition, Ursus americanus