Wildlife of the Week!

© A black bear forages along a shoreline of the Salish Sea. Circa 2018.

The species we have decided to focus on for this Wildlife of the Week is known by many, but encountered very rarely on our tours! The American black bear (Ursus americanus), is the most common bear species in Canada. This black bear was spotted walking along the shore in 2018 on one of our marine tours. Did you know that British Columbia has some of the highest numbers of this animal in the country? Remember to always be aware and respectful when in the habitat of wild animals, like bears. Read on below to learn more about the black bear. 

The black bear is smaller than the Grizzly bear, which also roams areas of Canada. The size of these animals ranges from 5-6 feet long and they weigh between 200-600 pounds. Their body is robust with a wide head equipped with round ears. Their snout is pointed and is usually a tan color, as opposed to the rest of their body which is often uniform black (excluding sometimes a white v on the chest). It is important to note that not all black bears are black, and other colors include cinnamon, blonde, brown and even white and blue. There are 6 recognized subspecies (some to be elaborated on later). This bear’s feet include flat pads with five toes and relatively short claws; claws that are useful in helping the bear climb trees. 

The black bear has a wide habitat range in North America that stretches from the Arctic treeline to Florida and northern Mexico. Through Canada, their habitats range from the West to East Coasts. Despite the large range mentioned above, black bears are not present in some areas of the United States. With their superior climbing abilities, the bears can be found in forests but also within swamps. They prefer areas with moisture, or areas near the coast, as they are usually able to find higher concentrations of food (vegetation and salmon, respectively). They are found less commonly in grasslands and alpine areas. In an obvious sense, black bears are not common within urban areas or busy human sites, however black bears may enter human sites due to food attraction (described more below). 

The black bear is officially considered a carnivore but is als an omnivore. The black bear is an opportunistic eater; this means that the animal will often opt for what is accessible and available to them at the time. Black bears have an extremely diverse diet and a great sense of smell to find prey. Prey includes insects, larvae, berries, fruits, vegetation, small mammals, carrion (animal carcasses), trees’ cambium, newborn ungulates (e.g. deer, elk) and for coastal bears especially, spawning salmon. On rare occasions, they have been spotted preying on adult ungulates. Their prey often depends on the season and what is available to them, but vegetation is believed to make up the vast majority of the diet (80%). It is important to note (if you enter the backcountry), that bears will selectively feed near food-rich areas such as spawning salmon sites and berry patches. 

Also important to mention is the topic of illegally feeding wild bears; this is a dangerous practice for both humans and bears, as bears may become aggressive when seeking food from humans. Bears can also be then killed by authorities in order to protect humans. This also includes putting attention into leaving campsite food out of reach of bears and disposing of garbage properly (e.g. bear-proof garbage bins).

Black bears live about 20 years in the wild and reproduce slowly. A female will be ready to mate at about four years of age, however further breeding will only occur every other year or more (every 3 years). Breeding maturity age can also be strongly influenced by the presence of food for the bear. Males will typically breed between 5-6 years old, but this may be younger in some instances. In B.C., black bears typically mate in the early-mid summer, yet the cubs can be delayed in development by a reproductive process known as delayed implantation. The cubs are born during hibernation in litters of 1- 5 (usually 2); they will remain with their mother for a year or slightly longer before being driven away into their own independence. Interestingly enough, female cubs may have ranges that overlap their mother’s range, which is permitted by the mother. 

Most black bears hibernate in the winter once food becomes scarce, gorging themselves in the summer and fall. Many metabolic functions of the bears will cease during this period.  Dens are usually enclosed within large trees or stumps, under snags and brush piles, or rock cavities, to name a few. Dens may not be utilized if food is continually available to the animal. 

Black bears are numerous and as mentioned, may vary slightly in physical appearance within their subspecies. The blue “glacier” black bear (Ursus americanus emmonsii) is only found in the uppermost northwest regions of B.C. and adjacent portions of Alaska. The white black bear, otherwise known as the Kermode, or Spirit bear of the subspecies Ursus americanus kermodei is known well throughout B.C. This bear was known about for thousands of years by Peoples of the Tsimshian Nation, such as the Gitga’at, Kitasoo, and Kitsumkalum Nations. The Kermode bear is of great cultural and historical significance to many Indigenous groups. Read more here at The White Bear in the Rainforest and the Kermode Friendship Society. 

The black bear is included in Indigenous traditional ceremonies, mythologies and as a traditional and current food source. As a food source, the meat can be consumed fresh or dried. Bear fat was also utilized to make paint alongside pigments, and clothing could be made from skins.

In B.C., it is believed that black bears number between 125,000-150,000 in the province alone. Black bears are still doing well throughout B.C. despite habitat loss and other issues, mostly due to their high adaptability. Many problems arise (as mentioned above) when bears seek human controlled food systems such as campgrounds, fruit trees and beehives. Bear populations can also be reduced by logging and other habitat destruction, reduced salmon stocks, and car and railway traffic (being killed by vehicles). With their keen sense of smell, bears may enter urban areas and learn to associate humans with food when they are able to access human food sources; therefore follow tips for proper food and waste disposal when living or visiting areas where bears might be found. Access the Conservation Officer Service in B.C. at 1-877-952-7277 to report sightings of aggressive bears or those that have wandered into human areas. 

Black bears play an extremely integral role in the ecosystem. Home ranges for males are larger than females, but all home ranges involve travelling routes and feeding sites. They benefit the ecosystem through the food they eat. Bears help to transport nutrients from coastal salmon into the soil, transport seeds and recycle carrion (all through consumption). Feeding on tree layers also creates snags and habitat for other creatures. Black bears hold a significant cultural value as mentioned, as well as for ecotourism, when done respectfully of course. The Kermode bear is the official mammal of British Columbia. What an amazing animal!

It is clear that there is much to learn and love about the black bear. Try out some trivia below to test your knowledge!

  1. True or False? Black bears may step exactly within the footsteps of other bears when travelling along paths. (ANS: True). 
  2. Improperly-handled ______ is the greatest cause of human-bear conflicts and issues. (ANS: Garbage). 
  3. Black bear’s claws are retractable (ANS: False). 

BONUS CHALLENGE: 

What are some signs of black bears?

Footprints, scats, rubbing trees, claw marks, ripped-up logs. 

Article Authored By: Alexa D., B.Sc./ Five Star Whale Watching. 

To learn more about this bear and its cultural history, visit our References below! 

Black Bears in British Columbia.

American Black Bear: National Geographic.

The White Bear in the Rainforest.

Kermode Friendship Society.

WildSafe BC.

Defenders of Wildlife.