September 8, 2023 at 5:50 a.m.

Department of Natural Resources Learn to Hunt Bear webinar focuses on new hunters

Outdoors Writer

Recently the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) put together a Learn to Hunt Bear webinar focused to newer bear hunters. The aim was to not only give information about bear biology, but also to provide tips on how to have a successful bear hunt. Supervisor Bob Nack, wildlife biologist Alaina Roth and warden Matt Meade were the presenters for the webinar.

Bear biology

The webinar started with information about bear biology. Wisconsin is home to only one species of bear, the black bear. As the name suggests, they are predominantly black. Approximately 20-30% of them will have some white on their chest, but will still be mostly black.

Determining sex in a younger bear can be difficult, according to Roth. However, once they get older, there are some things to look at to help determine that. Boars, she said, have more of a square shaped muzzle. Overall they are more square and blocky in shape. Their shoulders and forearms are also thicker. Adult males can weigh between 125-500 pounds on average and have a home range of approximately 35 square miles.

Females’ home range tends to be much smaller, with an average of seven square miles. While cubs are young, that range shrinks even more. Sows do not get as long as boars, and tend to have more weight in the back. “Bigger butts,” as Roth put it. Their stomach may also start to drag the ground as they get bigger. They have thinner forearms and their muzzle tends to be more cone-shaped. They can range from 90 to 375 pounds on average when full grown.

Bears have claws that make them excellent climbers. They have poor eye sight, however, meaning they use their sense of smell to find forage. They will check back on a food source time after time and even remember places where they found food from year to year. This is what helps hunters who put out bear baits be successful.

Bears also provide several ecological services. They help to break down logs and fallen trees where they dig for bugs and grubs. They also help with decomposition of animals on which they prey. Although omnivorous, most of a bear’s diet is comprised of plants. That said, they are important seed dispersers. They can plant trees wherever they go across their range.


Bears are not true hibernators, but take advantage of some form of torpor. However, it is widely agreed they spend the winter in a hibernation-like state. They may wake up occasionally, but sleep for the most part from October through April or May. 

Bears are opportunistic when it comes to denning. They will utilize many different areas for dens. Dens in root balls or under fallen trees are common. Rock outcroppings are also utilized as dens, but they can even den in an area out in the open by creating their own cover. They are very adaptable and will den almost anywhere, even under a deck of a home or cabin, as some in the Northwoods understand all too well.

During hibernation, their metabolic rate is slowed drastically. They breath only a few times per minute and their heart beats only a couple of times per minute while they sleep. In the late fall they also develop a fecal plug by eating ferns and grasses. This prevents them from defecating during the winter. Bears also recycle their urine while they hibernate, which is a source of interest to scientists looking at certain human health conditions.


Mothers give birth to their cubs while still in the den. Babies weigh approximately a pound when they are born and grow incredibly fast. In just six months they will weigh up to 50 pounds. 

Cubs stay with their mother for the first two years, as they learn to forage and do all of the things they will need to do to be successful adult bears. After the second summer, the mother bears kick out the young bears who now must find their own home range. In fact, the only time bears will be seen together, Roth said, is when they are breeding, or when cubs are still with their mothers. While they are on their own after their second summer, bears to not sexually mature until they are four or five years old. They are slow-growing animals, long-lived and slower to reproduce than many other animals. For that reason, she said, management of the species is very important to the robust populations in the state.


Nack spoke about management of bear in the state. The state, he said, is split into management zones A through F. The zones are based on available habitat, bear densities and nuisance issues. 

The time it takes to draw a tag varies by management zone. For instance, in Zone F there are not a lot of bears and also not a lot of people hunting, he said, so waiting for a permit does not take long. In other zones, the wait may be up to nine or 10 years. Those looking to draw a tag in the lottery drawing must apply for preference points.

When it comes to gathering information about bear, Nack said, hunters are the most important source of that data. Hunters who successfully harvest a bear must submit a premolar from the bear. This is used to determine the age of the bear.

Another source of information about bear populations are the hair snare studies conducted by the DNR. Bait is surrounded with barbed wire, which snags the bear’s hair as they head to the bait. Genetic information can be taken from this hair.

Nack said there is also a diet and reproduction study currently underway where sows are collared and studied along with their cubs. The thought is that better nutrition through a variety and abundance of forage across the state has lead to larger litter sizes and also larger overall body weight of the cubs.

The department also uses information gathered in the Snapshot Wisconsin project. A network of citizen-placed and monitored DNR cameras captures photographs of wildlife that comes through, giving researchers a cue to how abundance and range of many species of wildlife, including bears. 


When it comes to equipment for hunting bear, Nack said, a variety of things can be used, from vertical bows and crossbows to rifles, shotguns and handguns. He recommended all hunters understand their own limitations as well as the limitations of the type of weapon with which they decide to hunt bear.

He recommended a .270 or larger rifle and stated 12-gauge or 20-gauge shotguns are also used by many hunters. Archery equipment, he said, must have a minimum draw weight of 30 pounds. Crossbows must have a minimum draw weight of 100 pounds. The type of weapon is up to the hunter and the level of challenge for which they are looking.

Nack spoke about the benefits and drawbacks of using a scope as well. A scope has definite benefits for a longer shot. However, they can be a hinderance on a shorter-range shot. Because bears are so big, a hunter looking through a scope at a closer range bear may see nothing but fur.

Clothing is also important in bear hunting, as it is in all hunting. Nack recommended hunters wear as much camouflage as possible and to be aware of scent. Because bears have a good sense of smell, they are apt to shy away from human scent.

“Don’t wear them in the restaurant or in the cabin where you’re making breakfast,” Nack said of bear hunting clothes. Some recommend leaving an article of clothing near the hunting site before the season to let the bear get used to the scent of that particular hunter.

When hunting with dogs, Nack said, camouflage and scent are less of a concern, but hunters should keep in mind the terrain through which they will likely be traveling.

Footwear is important, especially when working with dogs. Hunters will likely be covering a good deal of ground, so properly fitting, high-quality boots are important. Waterproof footwear may also be important, depending on where a hunter is hunting.

Nack also said all hunters should know how to use a compass. While GPS units and cell phones can fall victim to dead batteries, that is not the case with a compass. While he admitted a compass is “old school” equipment, learning to use one can help a hunter get out of the woods should they get turned around.

Hunters, he said, should also think about how they will get a bear out of the woods if they were to harvest one. A rope, drag line or cart will likely be important in getting the bear out of the woods. A knife and possibly gloves for field dressing the bear will also be important.

Bug spray, a first aid kit, extra water and snacks are also a good idea. A flashlight is easy to carry and will be most helpful if a hunter finds themselves in the woods later than expected. 

Hunting with bait

Hunting with bait, Nack said, is likely the most popular strategy for hunters in Wisconsin. The majority of bears each year are harvested over bait. When looking to place bait, he said, scouting is important. Hungers should look for tracks, trees where bear might be scratching, bear scat, food sources and other signs that an area is being used by bears. He also recommended talking to other people about where they are seeing bears.

A good site for bear bait, he said, will be close to the thick cover bears often use to lay low during the day and stay cool. 

He said bait sites may be tight, meaning they have limited visibility from the hunting location. This helps hide the hunter, thereby making the bear feel more secure. But this also offers less notice that a bear is coming to the bait until it is on top of it.

Nack said using cameras at a bait site will give a hunter a good idea of who is visiting the bait. If a hunter sees a sow with cubs, they will know this is a bear they cannot harvest. Findings on a trail camera may influence whether or not a hunter hunts a particular bait site. Often bears will be seen on camera right up to a week before the season opens. Then they will seemingly disappear. Nack said hunters should understand they may happen, and it may be for a variety of reasons including natural food coming into season or other hunters placing bait and influencing which baits a bear visits.

Hunting with dogs

Hunting with dogs, Nack said, can be equally exciting. Hunters use dogs to follow the scent of a bear, often from a bait. The key is for the dogs to lead the hunter to a safe harvest opportunity, often by treeing a bear. Training of bear dogs is of the utmost importance, he said. Hunters spend a great deal of time and money on training dogs before a dog ever takes to the woods in search of a bear. They locate bear by scent, not sight. Once a hunter knows a bear has visited a bait, they bring the dogs in, who then follow that scent to find the bear.

Nack recommended novice hunters only harvest bear that have been treed. Bear on the ground, with dogs around it, can make for a more difficult shot. Other hunters may be in the area as well, making it even more dangerous, especially for those without a good deal of experience.

Dogs used must all have ID collars and most have GPS collars. The ID will allow a land owner or warden who finds a dog to know to whom the dog belongs. The GPS collar allows the hunter to always know where each dog is at all times.

Nack also spoke about avoiding conflicts. When it comes to hunting near private property, he said, hunters should ask beforehand if a land owner would allow them to come onto private property to simply retrieve a dog. Most people, he said, will agree. However, if a property owner will not allow a hunter access to retrieve a dog, the hunter may think about hunting in a different area. Hunters should also exercise caution in areas known to be caution areas for wolf conflicts. These areas are highlighted on the DNR website, he said. 

The season and enforcement

Warden Meade spoke about the season framework and regulations for bear hunting. In odd-numbered years such as this one, he said, hunters using dogs get first crack at the season. In even-numbered years, hunters using only bait get the first portion of the season to themselves. While both groups have the same number of days in their season, this rotation allows each group to have their turn to hunt first. This balances the harvest opportunity while also reducing conflicts.

A license is required to hunt bear, Meade said. This starts in December when hunters opt to draw a preference point or a Class A kill tag. Hunters who are successful in drawing a tag are notified by postcard in February. Once the postcard is received, however, if a hunter intends to hunt and harvest a bear, they must purchase a license. Receipt of this postcard is not a license itself. It only gives the hunter the opportunity to purchase a license.

Once a bear is harvested, he said, the tag must be validated. This is done by ripping off the bottom portion of the tag. A paper tag must be carried into the woods with the hunter and kept with them at all times. Unlike some other hunting and fishing authorizations, an electronic copy will not suffice. Hunters should ensure the tag remains legible, keeping it in a Ziploc bag, if necessary. If a hunter leaves their bear at any time after harvest, the tag must be attached to the bear. This tag, and the confirmation number give upon registration, must be kept with the meat until it is consumed.

Once a bear is harvested, the hunter has until 5 p.m. the next day to register their kill. This can be done by phone or online through the Go Wild system, as is the case with other forms of hunting. One additional requirement for bear hunters is to submit a premolar of the bear for aging.

Meade also spoke about bait regulations. Placing of bait can start as early as April 1 each year. In the north, where hunters sometimes cannot get into the woods yet in the beginning of April, however, that date may be later at the discretion of the hunter. Bait cannot exceed 10 gallons and must be completely covered to prevent access by other animals. No animal parts or animal by-products can be used in bait. However, liquid scent is allowed. The DNR has asked hunters to limit the use of chocolate whenever possible, as some studies show toxicity to cubs and young black bear. 

Bait should not be placed within 50 yards of any trail or road used by the public, campsites or roadways on which the speed limit is 45 miles per hour or more.

Meade said only adult bear can be harvested during the season. Cubs and sows with cubs are illegal to harvest. Bears must be 42 inches from nose to tail in order to be hunted. Hunters have been known to cut a length of aspen, birch or other easy-to-see markers to 42 inches, making it easy to determine if a bear is longer than that when it passes by on camera.

There is a six-dog pack rule for hunting with dogs also, he said. This means only six dogs can be involved in one hunt, regardless of how many people own those dogs. 


Lastly, Meade touched on ethics. Doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons is known as being ethical. Not all people are pro-hunting, he said, but even most non-hunters are more comfortable with animals being harvested in and ethical manner and being treated with respect after the harvest. 

The full Learn to Hunt Bear webinar can be found on the DNR YouTube page by searching WIDNR on the platform.

Beckie Gaskill may be reached via email at [email protected].


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