Grouse Mountain's grizzly bears emerge from their longest hibernation ever

Grizzly bears Grinder and Coola emerged from their den on Grouse Mountain on April 29, 2021, after 170 days of hibernation. (Supplied photo/Grouse Mountain)

The two grizzly bears held in captivity on Grouse Mountain have awoken from their longest hibernation ever, according to park rangers.

The bears, both of whom were found orphaned as cubs in 2001, live in a 5.5-acre sanctuary at the top of Grouse Mountain.

“This was the longest (hibernation) we’ve had here to date,” said Devin Manky, the wildlife manager at Grouse Mountain.

The bears, Grinder and Coola, normally hibernate for about 4 months, and their previous record for their longest hibernation was 153 days. This year’s was 170 days long, and spanned from Nov. 10 to April 29.

“That was a little surprising,” Manky said.

“We had early snowfall last November, and then we had late snowfall … 30 to 40 centimeters of snow just three weeks ago, so we had a very late snow pack up here, and that's what kept them in (hibernation) a little longer,” he said.

Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, the mountain is only able to host local guests, but the bears’ living space is outfitted with two webcams. On Saturday, the bears could be seen rolling around on the snow in their fenced living space, while a few park visitors snapped photos.

Grinder, the braver and more “exploratory,” was the first to dig his way out of the small snowbank that rangers had built up around their den. His companion, Coola, who’s a bit bigger than him, followed shortly after but had to expand Grinder’s hole in order to squeeze her way out, Manky said.

“We put some lettuce around to sort of imitate what bears in the wild would be finding,” Manky said.

Before going into hibernation, the bears eat tree bark to plug their digestive system with a “fecal plug.” This signals to their body that digestion is on hold, and to start burning body fat while they sleep away the winter.

The lettuce, which the bears have been eating in recent days, helps “move things along,” Manky said.

“They want to eat lots of moist leafy greens and flush things out, so it’s kind of like a green smoothie,” he said.

Grinder and Coola, both 20-years-old, are the human equivalent of 50- or 60-year-olds, Manky said. On the day the bears emerged, after eating the lettuce, they rolled around on the snow to clean themselves off, and then began to play.

“They go and play like kids, they wrestle, they roll around, they sort of goad each other on and basically just have a lot of fun,” Manky said.

Manky said there’s never been any plan for the bears to be released back into the wild, in part because their comfort around humans means they could be a threat if released. But there are plans to use what they’ve learned from the pair to help rehabilitate and release other orphaned grizzlies.

“That was a big focus of ours, putting together a plan for raising and releasing future orphaned grizzly bear cubs, but for a variety of reasons we haven't been able to put the plan into place yet, but we have shared what we know with other rehabilitators around the world,” he said.

Visits to the bear habitat are a popular field trip for school groups, said Manky, and although the COVID-19 pandemic has meant there are no kids coming up in large groups this year, Grouse Mountain has pivoted its school program to offer online visits and programming around the grizzlies.