Bernie Adilman came back from his weekend ice fishing trip near Whitehorse with what sounds like a tall tale — a mid-February bear sighting.

"I guess it just woke up a little early," he said.

The bear was far enough away that it did not pose a risk to Adilman and his fishing buddies. Just a moving black spot on a distant hillside, spotted by his wife.

"She said, 'wow, there's a bear, I think it's a bear'. So we started looking," he said. "Sure enough, it certainly looked like a black bear."

Adilman said he's seen bears in mid-winter "maybe once or twice" before in his life. He wonders if the yo-yoing temperatures this year have confused the animal.

"The weather's been so wacky, I'm sure they don't know what's going on either — it's either plus four or minus 30."

Unexpected, but not unheard of

Ken Knutson, manager of Yukon's Conservation Officer Services, admits it's an unexpected sighting but not unheard of. Bears will sometimes wake up for periods, but typically don't stray far from their dens.

"We don't expect them to be out and around and too visible for another couple months yet," he said.

Knutson wouldn't speculate on whether recent mild temperatures could explain the sighting, or if climate change is having an impact on bear behaviour.

"It does seem like our springs are warmer now, and arriving earlier," he said.

"How that will impact the ecology of the Yukon, and how wildlife in general behaves, has yet to be seen."

Tom Jung senior biologist Yukon government

Yukon government biologist Tom Jung says bears are often aroused from their winter sleep. (Mike Rudyk)

Yukon government biologist Tom Jung said it's possible bears may start going into their dens later and emerging earlier. He says some bears may also wake because of warm weather — melting snow can sometimes drain into a den.

"[Bears] don't want to lie in a bed of water. They basically get flooded out of their house," Jung said. "So that's one of the things we may start seeing a little bit more, with climate change."

But Jung says there's debate around whether bears are considered "true hibernators," compared to other animals that go into a long, deep winter sleep.

"They don't really bring their body metabolism down all that much, and they're very much alert still," he said. "It's quite a common thing for bears to arouse in the winter."

With files from Cheryl Kawaja