What is a cub, and what’s its key for survival?

Reports of lone “cubs” running around has come up a lot recently as residents report bear sightings and incidents. It’s not something I get my underwear all in a bunch over, but I often wonder if what people reported seeing were, indeed, “cubs.”

An easy distinction is that cubs have short, round, chopped-off faces while a year-old bear will have a longer, more pointed face. Perhaps examining the first 18 months of a bear’s life could help us out further. Here goes.

Cubs are born in the den in late January or early February.

Two to three cubs are the norm, and they’re tiny at birth – about the size of a chipmunk and 1/300th to 1/500th the size of their mother. They don’t hibernate and instead feed on rich mother’s milk that’s 33 percent fat.

They quickly add weight. By the time they exit dens with their mom in March and April, cubs are about the size of a volleyball.

They continue growing rapidly. In good food years, cubs can weigh around 45 pounds their first summer, 100 pounds the next and 300 pounds the following, although the size of a bear is typically solely dictated by the quality of the habitat it occupies.

Most everything a bear knows in its adult life it learns from its mother in a flurry of new experiences – what time of year to find specific natural foods, tearing up logs and flipping over rocks for insects and larvae, locations of dens, water and habitats rich with plants, berries and acorns, and seeking safety by climbing trees in avoiding harm from predators, including other bears.

Despite having amazing teachers, about one in three cubs won’t make it to its first birthday, even fewer in years of poor natural food production.

Those that do survive go back into dens with their mom in late fall for their first full dose of winter hibernation.

Like all hibernating bears, they will lose a good portion of their body weight during the foodless five to six months spent in dens, so they can be quite small again coming out the next spring, as yearlings.

Yearling bears will spend their second spring adding wisdom and weight before they disperse (or leave their mother) in June at around 18 months of age. Females tend to settle in an area that overlaps their mother’s home range, while males strike out on their own in search of new habitat, oftentimes following stream beds and waterways and sometimes traveling hundreds of miles.

Newly dispersed male yearlings encounter many obstacles in their journeys. Most good habitat is already occupied by other bears, and older male bears aggressively chase them off. Travel itself involves risk, most notably being killed by vehicles.

It must be nerve-wracking being a young bear. Hopefully, they’ve learned enough in that formulative year and a half spent with their mom that they can grow to become mature, healthy and good-sized bears – ones that no one could possibly mistake for a cub.

Bp@frontier.net. Bryan Peterson is director of Bear Smart Durango, formed in 2003 to educate residents about safely and respectfully coexisting with bears and to advocate for policy changes. For more information, visit www.bearsmartdurango.org.