From east to west, you can find bears in most places across Canada. The province of British Columbia has the highest population of bears in Canada, though you can see these animals in the Canadian Rockies, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and more. The country is undoubtedly the best destination for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing a bear. If you plan to go bear-watching on vacation, you must know about bear behaviours and hibernation.
Canada’s bear population makes up 60 percent of these animals’ numbers worldwide. These furry mammals are roam the mountains, tundra and forests in Canada.
Three species of bears — the American Black Bear, the North American Brown Bear (also known as the Grizzly Bear), and the Polar Bear — call Canada their home. A rare cream-coloured subspecies of the black bear, Kermode or Spirit Bear, is only found in the Canadian province of British Columbia. It has never been seen anywhere else in the world.
The best opportunity to see these amazing wild animals is during the bear-watching season, which runs from April or May to October. During these warmer months, the bears are out of hibernation.
While not all animals hibernate, it is common for bears to do so. Most bears, including the males, hibernate during the winter. This is from October or November until April or when the snow starts melting.
Not all species of bears have the same hibernation practices, and their deep sleeping time varies depending on their habitat and location. Learning about these incredible mammals that live in Canada can help us understand how to treat and protect them.
Let's take a look in detail at the hibernating habits of Canadian bears.
Why do bears hibernate?
During the cold winter, bears undergo inactive mode to survive the fluctuating temperatures. Hibernation in bears does not mean they are sleeping the whole time. Most of the time, they curl up in their dens and don't eat or drink. They lower their body temperature and display minimal movement. Bears take this winter break to conserve energy due to the lack of food available during cold temperatures.
Bears are opportunistic animals. If food is available (in milder climates), they don't need to hibernate unless they are pregnant. For bears, hibernation is a survival strategy when food is scarce in the harsh winter conditions.
How long do bears hibernate?
In Canada, the hibernation period of the bears depends on the location. For example, on Vancouver Island and coastal British Columbia, bears hibernate for a shorter period than in northern areas. The weather can remain cold for a long time in some parts of Canada, especially up north. In these areas, the ideal hibernating period is seven months, from October to April. If the winter isn't that harsh, say in the southern parts of the country, the hibernation period might be six months. In the coastal regions, bears may only hibernate for two to five months
On average, black and grizzly bears hibernate for about four to seven months.
Did you know that the polar bear doesn't hibernate? Polar bears eat seals and can hunt on the ice throughout the year. Pregnant polar bears dig maternity dens in the snow during late autumn to keep themselves warm. They stay there until March or April.
[Explore: Best Polar Bear Tours in Churchill]
How do bears get themselves ready for hibernation?
Bears use the fall months to prepare for hibernation. During this time, they don't do much but eat. If you go bear-watching in summer or fall, you might see them munching on berries, fish or smaller animals. Bears are supposed to eat several pounds of food in a day to fatten up. Bears often double their weight when getting ready for hibernation. They often weigh between 180 and 600 pounds in these months. The more the bear weighs, the better the chance it has of surviving the cold winter weather.
This excessive feeding activity to gain weight is called hyperphagia. Bears need to go through hyperphagia in autumn if they want to survive the winter.
What do they eat?
Canadian bears are omnivorous. They devour nuts, berries, grass, insects, fish, small animals, and birds. Bears often catch and eat salmon from the Canadian rivers. Depending on the location, both black bears and grizzly bears will consume whatever is available. They eat up to 90 pounds of food per day and form fat reserves in their bodies. These fat reserves mean bears can live without food during the hibernation period.
The denning activity of the Canadian bears
To protect themselves from the low temperatures, bears build a den. Every year, they make a new den. Usually this den is near where they made the last one or inside their familiar territory. During the fall, both grizzly and black bears start the construction of dens with narrow entrances. They take about 3 to 7 days to finish digging their dens. The dens are often made under the base of (or close to) large trees. They can also be near brush piles, logs, or caves.
Bears put together their dens as burrows in the ground, holes in hollow trees or logs, under natural rock crevices or caves, or under the leaves which cover up in snow later on. Once the dens are set up, the bears drag leaves and branches into the den for insulation. This makeshift bedding of branches forms air pockets that restrict the trapped body heat from escaping from the den. This ensures that the bears stay warm throughout the winter months.
During the late fall, when the temperature drops and food becomes scarce, these mammals are ready to curl up inside their cozy winter dens.
What do bears do during hibernation?
Throughout the winter, bears do not eat, drink, urinate or defecate. They become inactive but do not completely shut down all bodily functions. They can change positions while hibernating to avoid getting sores from the pressure. They can also quickly wake up if their dens get flooded or if they sense any danger or a predator nearby. That's not all: female bears also give birth while hibernating.
What happens when the bears come out from hibernation?
When the temperature begins to warm up and the snow melts away, the bears wake up from their slumber and know that it's time to abandon their dens. Dominant male bears are the first to emerge, the lone bears or sub-adults are next and the mother bears with the cubs are the last to come out from their dens.
When bears emerge from their dens in the spring, after months of sleeping and shedding the extra fat, they are extremely hungry. They begin searching for berries or carcasses. Female bears with cubs are under extra pressure to find food for themselves and their young ones.
When is the best time to go bear-watching in Canada?
After emerging from hibernation in April, both black and grizzly bears are extremely hungry and head to devour the spring growth.
If you want to see bears, it is best to visit Canada during the late spring or early fall. Bears are also commonly seen in the summer. May to October is the time when bears are not hibernating.
Late August to November is salmon-spawing season in some areas. During this time, salmon return to rivers and creeks. Bears can be seen snatching salmon from rivers to fatten up for the upcoming winter.
Where to go bear-watching in Canada
For the Black Bears: Black bears live in the forest regions of every Canadian province (except Prince Edward Island). The best spots to watch black bears include Whistler and Vancouver Island in British Columbia, and the Boreal Forest in Ontario.
For the Grizzly Bears: There is a sure-shot chance to spot grizzlies in the Great Bear Rainforest. Travel to Knight Inlet Lodge for bear viewing in the Great Bear Rainforest on our Lords of the Wilderness trip. They can be also spotted in Yukon, Alberta, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.
The Great Bear Rainforest is also home to the rare Kermode Bear. If you're lucky, you can spot them here along with the Grizzlies.
For the Polar Bears: Without a doubt, Churchill is the best place for polar bear viewing. In the province of Manitoba, the remote town of Churchill is dearly nicknamed the "polar bear capital of the world". Our Canadian Train and Polar Bear Experience includes three nights in Churchill.
#1 Travel tip: Wilderness Lodges
For the ultimate multi-day bear-viewing experience, stay at a wilderness lodge in the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia. Knight Inlet Lodge is one of our favourites! — Hannah Poaros-McDermott
Should you go bear-watching during their hibernation period?
It is unlikely you'll see a bear in the winter when they are hibernating. If you do stumble across a bear's den, do not disturb the bear. A bear can wake up quickly and defend itself if it senses danger.
How you should avoid a bear that has just come out from hibernation?
Bears, being shy creatures, tend to avoid people. They could be hiding behind bushes or dense places. Avoid hiking on trails that do not provide a clear line of sight.
When walking or hiking, keep an eye out for signs of bear activity like fresh droppings, new tracks, overturned rocks or scratched logs. If you see any of these signs, leave the area calmly. Be vigilant in areas with bear food resources such as berry patches, garbage pits or fields. If you see an animal carcass, a bear or other predator could be nearby. Watch out for groups of birds, like crows, ravens, jays or magpies. These birds are often found near animal carcasses which attract bears as well.
Talk loudly or sing while hiking. Loud noise makes the bears aware of your presence and gives them time to move away.
Be extra cautious when you are hiking around rivers and streams because you might encounter a hungry bear searching for salmon.
Be vigilant if you need to go out in the late evening or early morning because this is when bears are most active.
#2 Travel tip: See bears from the train
You don’t always have to book a tour to see bears. Guests frequently spot black and grizzly bears while onboard the Rocky Mountaineer. The train slows for wildlife sightings, giving you time to take photos!
What you should do if you encounter a bear that has just come out of hibernation?
Always respect the bear's personal space. If you spot a bear in the distance, don't approach it.
If you are on a trail and you have a close encounter with a bear, you should stop where you are and quickly evaluate the situation. Get your bear spray ready to use and do not run. Back away slowly and maintain a safe distance between you and the bear. The more the distance, the less likely the bear will see you as a threat. Please check each province's bear safety guides before visiting.
How humans should protect the bears after hibernation?
As increased human activity has invaded bears' natural habitat, it is becoming more common for bears to roam close to local communities in their search for food in the summer. It is advisable to leave them alone during their eating activity after hibernation. You do not want to come face to face with a hungry bear.
In Canada, bears often graze on dandelions and grass in fields, on hill sides, and by the roads. While driving or hiking on forest trails and in mountain national parks, such as Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay, be bear aware. If you go for a hike on your own, be extra cautious. To watch bears in their natural habitat, go bear-watching with a tour guide.
Due to climate change and the shortening of winter, bears' hibernating habits are changing. Ecologists say that we must give bears as much space as possible.
Bears are considered Canadian icons. We should protect these animals and live in harmony with them.
Bears are one of the most majestic creatures in the world, thanks to their strength and intelligence. They have fascinated humans throughout the ages, and their hibernation habits are an interesting part of their lives. During the summer, while bears are eating, denning, feeding on salmons, and getting fat for hibernation, bear-watching becomes an exciting outdoor activity in Canada.
If seeing a bear is on your bucket list, you will get countless chances while exploring the Canadian wilderness and its national parks.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does a polar bear hibernate?
Unlike other bears, polar bears do not hibernate.
What months do polar bears hibernate?
Pregnant polar bears build snow dens during the fall and winter months, but this is not for hibernation. They do this to prepare for giving birth.
How long do polar bears sleep?
Polar bears sleep for around seven to eight hours at a time. Like humans, they also take naps when they need to conserve energy.
What happens if you wake a hibernating bear?
Polar bears do not hibernate, though other bears do. For bears that hibernate, many factors can affect when they wake up. If a bear is disturbed by a loud noise or senses a threat, they could wake up early. In this instance, a bear would defend itself.
How long can a polar bear go without air?
Polar bears can hold their breath and close their nostrils to swim underwater. Most dives are short, lasting from 30 seconds to two minutes on average.
Can polar bears survive in warmer weather?
Polar bears have adapted to the Arctic’s freezing temperatures. They depend on the sea ice to hunt and breed. Due to climate change, this cold environment is warming, and the ice is melting. While polar bears can regulate their body temperatures, they would likely overheat if they were in a warm environment for a prolonged period.
What is the warmest temperature a polar bear can live in?
Average temperatures in the Arctic can range between –40° C to 10° C. In some regions, summer temperatures can occasionally reach 30° C. There is not enough data to know how long a polar bear could live in a warm climate.
How long do polar bears live?
In their natural habitat, the average polar bear lives to be around 15-20 years old. There are records of polar bears reaching their 30s, but this is not common due to climate change and other threats to their survival.
About the author: Hannah Poaros-McDermott is the Senior Content Coordinator at Fresh Tracks Canada. She has previously written for and shared her local knowledge in Where Vancouver, Where Whistler, and Essential Vancouver magazines. Originally from the UK, Hannah travelled... Read more
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