Wildlife officials say a black bear seen stumbling across Highway 3 earlier this month is most likely safely back in its den, waiting for spring.

George Bugghins was driving from Yellowknife to Hay River with his wife when he saw a big, dark, furry animal moving across the road about a kilometre ahead of them, just north of Fort Providence.

"I thought it was a buffalo, but just for the fun of it I told the old lady, 'Hey, look at that bear,' and sure enough when we got close enough, it was a bear.

"It was kind of skinny and all his paws were frozen. He came out of the bush and just barely made it to the road. Tried to run across the road and fell four times."

Bugghins captured the encounter on video, and after the bear entered the trees, he drove on. When he reached Fort Providence, he asked for the phone number of the local wildlife officer and reported what he'd seen.

He said the only other bear he ever saw out and about that early in the year was one that wandered into the K'atl'odeeche reserve. It was "nothing but skin and bones," he said, and too close to town so he had to shoot it.

He said he didn't have much hope for the bear he saw near Fort Providence.

"Either he just dies himself or the wolves will get him," he said.

Tony Vermillion, a wildlife and environment manager for the South Slave region, said a wildlife officer went out and followed the tracks of the bear Bugghins saw. Vermillion said it came across the highway, went into the trees for a few hundred feet, then turned around and went back where it came from.

"We're assuming it went back to its den," he said.

Not uncommon

He said it's not uncommon for bears to make brief ventures out of their dens during the winter and in early spring. He said trappers have reported seeing traces of active bears in previous years.

"They could be disturbed somehow by noise or by other animals," he said.

"It could be the melting of the snow, causing water to get into the dens and waking them up. Or maybe it's just a really warm day and they need to get out and stretch."

Typically bears get up, stretch, maybe look for food, walk around a bit, then go back to their dens. He said what's unusual is that someone was around to see it and got it on video.

As for the bear's problems with its paws, he said it's tough for them to walk around in the snow. During hibernation, "bears tend to lose a lot of the padding on their feet, so their feet are fairly sensitive, and even in the spring, after the snow melts, they tend to walk a little different until they build up the callouses on their feet," Vermillion said.

"Just like walking around with no shoes on."

He said he doesn't believe the bear is at any risk.

with files from Northwind