Updated on February 22, 2024

Bears in the winter

The best time to research bears

Though your winter wildlife excursions are likely limited to recreation, scientists and ecologists use this season as an ideal time to research bears. They track where bears make their dens and may even enter them to do a health check up on cubs.

“It’s a big question in the bear biology community … what makes a good bear den?” said Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild co-host and bear expert.

What scientists have found is bears make their dens based on their perception of being safe from threats and having resources, but they don’t return to the same den year after year. Dens can be deep in the wilderness or close to civilization, like near a ski resort.

“I met a mama bear in the Asheville, North Carolina, area who made her winter den with her cubs right under a highway,” Dr. Rae said. “It’s in the mountains, but hers was at the base of this tree under an overpass. For whatever reason she chose that as a safe place to give birth to her cubs.”

“A hypothesis is that some female bears may choose dens closer to activity because it’s further from aggressive males,” Dr. Rae said.

Researching bear dens helps conservationists better understand bear behavior so we, as humans, know how to best protect the species.

“Conservation isn’t always creating protective areas. Sometimes it’s really understanding the nuances and complexities through animal behavior. Maybe we need to protect areas along highways,” Dr. Rae said. One species that benefits from protected highways? Florida cougars. Learn more about their incredible conservation story.


A black bear looking towards the camera and seeming to smile. He is surrounded by green leaves and vegitation.


Do all bears hibernate in the winter?

As scientists are learning more about bears, we can also educate ourselves on their habits. A fun way to start? By discovering that not all bears hibernate in the winter!

“Hibernation is fascinating, but something that’s necessary only when food resources are low,” Dr. Rae said.

Even among species that hibernate, such as black and brown bears, not all these bears will hibernate during the winter. Bears in northern Minnesota will find a den, while those in Florida don’t hibernate at all.

“I live in a part of California that has black bears that don’t hibernate,” Dr. Rae said. “But other parts of California, food resources are gone in the winter.”

Bears instinctually slow their metabolism down to hibernate when they know food is scarce during the winter so they can survive to the spring.

So, if you’re planning on visiting an area that’s home to bears, do your research to find out if bears will be active during your stay. Check out the state’s department of wildlife to learn more.

“Actions you take to be a responsible camper during the summer should be the same during the wintertime,” Dr. Rae. “Animals that are out and about in the winter might be extra hungry. They have an ecology that allows them to survive the winter, but they’re definitely still looking for food resources.” So, keep your distance!

For more about bears, watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild episode “Rescue, Rehab and Release.”

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