A year in review at the WSU Bear Center

The bears will soon head off to hibernation, wrapping up another busy and educational year at the WSU Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center.

Traditionally, our WSU bears begin going into hibernation around November 1. The last day they are given food is October 31, though they have been tapering off in their meals for the last week.

But looking back, the 11 bears have had a great 2018, helping advance science and solving a variety of challenging puzzles to get some of their meals.

Energy use

The main research project this year involved looking at how bears gather and then use energy. In the project, WSU professor Charlie Robbins and his graduate student Tony Carnahan (and several undergraduate researchers as well) had a pair of bears receive most of their food from foraging in the exercise yard.

One of the two would be given supplemental food. The hypothesis is the bear on the minimal diet would spend more time grazing and resting. The study used energy monitoring collars to track how much each bear moved around.

A grizzly bear with a bright pink energy monitoring collar around its neck.
An energy monitoring collar, in place.

They don’t have results back yet, but Robbins and Carnahan hope to compile the data this winter and eventually publish their results to show how things like climate change alter bears’ energy collection.

Read more about the research.


Another research project was on a similar track, looking at bears’ thermoregulation, or how they keep body temperatures constant. The study, again involving Robbins and Carnahan, was a collaboration with University of Idaho professor Ryan Long and Savannah Rogers, one of his graduate students.

The group collected data by installing a weather station at the center and bringing in high-tech infrared and reflectivity equipment to see how bears fur works in thermoregulation.

This research also can show how well bears can adapt to warmer temperatures as the planet warms.

Read more about that study.

Growth of enrichment

A major advancement for the bears was the increase in enrichment items. Not only were more created, but the difficulty level bumped up this year as well. Instead of just simple ‘spin ball, food falls out’ items, this year saw the bears have to solve puzzles involving pulleys and multiple steps to get their treats.

A bear hangs off the edge of a wooden play structure looking for food.
One of the WSU bears hangs off the edge of the wooden play structure looking for hidden food.

One item involved a PVC pipe full of food hanging from the ceiling on a pulley. A bear would have to pull down the pipe, but then lift a slide up to get to the food. They never had any problems figuring out solutions.

“They’re very smart,” said Center manager Brandon Hutzenbiler. “They’ve each developed their own strategies. Some just pull it down, some pin it against the sides. They use their strengths to solve the problem.”

The best thing for the bears is when staff and volunteers hide food around their exercise yard. This mimics foraging for food in the wild, Hutzenbiler said.

Read more about the Bear Center enrichment program.

Off to hibernation, but still research to be done

This year, the bears won’t be done with research projects when they enter hibernation. WSU professor Heiko Jansen has a study that looks at what happens to bears that are fed during the winter. They did a preliminary study last year, but will continue this winter.

The initial study found that bears can wake up if they have access to food, but then return to hibernation when that food source goes away. This winter they’ll work to replicate their results.

Read more about this study here.

So, our bears had a good year and are definitely ready for winter. They put on between two and four pounds each day in September and October to hit their hibernation weight. We’d say they’ve earned a rest.