The BC coastline’s population of resident black, brown, cinnamon and grizzly bears is grown to legendary significance the world over. After their long winter hibernation, these magnificent creatures descend from their winter ranges in the mountains to the beaches where they feed on salmon, eat fresh grasses, pick mussels and clams and lick the salt off the rocky shorelines. They can be viewed foraging from a safe distance in a boat in practically every estuary on the mainland coast; specifically in the salmon bearing streams and rivers. Professional operators facilitate fascinating full day grizzly and black bear watching tours in fast boats such as Zodiacs, or with covered boats with comfortable amenities, all with expert interpretations.
Sightings: Common in summer and fall.
Black bears on Vancouver Island vary in both size and colour depending on availability of food, type of diet and proximity to varies elements. Although black is the most common colour for their thick luxurious coat, there can be periods of time when black bears display hues of brown.
The size of an adult male, measured from the ground to the shoulder when on all four legs can range from 125 to 200 centimetres and they can weigh from 50 to 250 kg. Adult females are also between 125 to 200 centimetres tall, but only weigh 30 to 70 kilos. At birth, a cub can weigh less than one quarter a kilo. Adults may live up to 20 years.
The most common variety the American Black Bear are found across North America, from Northern Mexico, to over 30 US States, to all the Provinces and Territories of Canada, with the exception of Prince Edward Island. They are found most abundantly in British Columbia and on Vancouver Island.
Black bears are omnivores and are opportunistic feeders: insects, nuts, berries, grasses and other vegetation, as well as meat such as deer or moose (although moose are not indigenous to Vancouver Island), it is known that they would rather forage for food than make the effort to actually kill it, with the exception of salmon which is a staple in the diet for all mainland and Vancouver Island black bears. Salmon provides the bulk of the much needed fat content and protein to carry them through the long winter hibernation.
Mating generally takes place every two years with the breeding season consisting of the summer months of June, July and August, the male and female will remain together for as little as a few hours or as much as a few days to insure insemination. Black bears are solitary, with the exception of females with cubs. The pregnancy lasts an estimated 220 days, with cubs being born in January and February. Litters range from 1 to 5, though 2 is the average and rarely if more than 3 cubs are born; do they survive The young stay with their mothers for up to two years.
Distribution and Habitation:
Black bears are the most widely distributed of British Columbia’s large mammals, virtually the entire province, including the outer coast and islands is densely populated black bear habitat. This also falls true for areas that have densely populated human habitation.
Transportation networks, residential and industrial developments dramatically affect black bears through habitat fragmentation and loss. Increased access result in an increase of human contact with black bears and often displaces bears from traditional foraging areas. Clear cutting of old growth forests may provide short-term benefits by providing increased berry or vegetation production, which in turn prompts a short term population boom of black bears on Vancouver Island.
However, once the second-growth forests are re-established with their dense canopies, they did not provide the same volume or quality of food as the younger or older well established forests. As an effect, a high rate of cannibalism of male black bears killing the young to provide the much needed protein for winter survival ensues. They ascribe these killings to three main factors:
- Increased interactions of males with females and cubs in the smaller foraging range.
- Increased vulnerability of females and cubs that den earlier than males.
- Loss of safety in dens of large hollow trees, root boles and logs.
British Columbia's black bear population is currently at an historic high. The wildlife experts estimate that 120,000 to 160,000 black bears live in British Columbia, having increased threefold since the 1870’s, with the most densely populated area being Vancouver Island. The Black bear has a greater ability to adjust to human activities compared to that of other bears; this has contributed to the perceived success in population increases.
Along with the population increases, British Columbia has experienced an escalation of black bear-human conflicts, particularly over the past ten years. The number of black bear complaints recorded by the Conservation Officer Service nearly doubled between 1992 and 1999 and doubled again between 1999 and 2009. Fewer bears are being trans-located each year due to the ineffectiveness of translocation and the additional problems it causes. Relocated bears frequently conflict with resident bear populations in habitat that is already fully occupied. Trans-located animals tend to return to their home territories and the site of the original conflict.
Are Bears Dangerous to Humans?
Although not common; each year in the province, several people are attacked, injured or killed in encounters with black bears. While most black bears are more likely to run away from humans than attack; the number of people assaulted by black bears in the province each year is about the same as the number attacked by the less abundant grizzly. These numbers are being intensified as the measure of people interacting with the bears steadily increases. Also taken into account are the infringement of habitat and the escalation of clear-cut logging which stress the delicate balance of the eco system in which the bears depend.
Being on the top of the predator food chain makes these animals dangerous to human beings and when in bear country precautions should always be taken to protect yourself against an eventful encounter.
Sightings: Common - On mainland coast near salmon bearing streams and rivers.
A large bulge made up of muscle and fat on the grizzly's shoulders easily identifies this species. The colors of their shaggy fir range from black, cinnamon, red, blond, to a mixture of any these colors, a male bear can weigh up to 900 kg however the average is closer to 400 kg. When standing erect, grizzlies can reach heights of up to ten feet.
Also known as the mighty brown bear, Grizzly’s evolved roughly a million years ago, almost certainly from the black bear family. Today a number of subspecies can be found around the world. The grizzly bear gets its name from the light-tipped guard hairs that give them a grizzled look.
In history; grizzlies were known to roam over most of the western United States, Alaska, Canada and southern Mexico. With the event of mass urbanization, habitat has been reduced to only particular remote ranges of the Coastal Mountains of British Columbia and plains of western United States and Canada. Grizzly bears are not indigenous to Vancouver Island although they have been known to swim from Island to Island in an effort to reach the Big Island. In most cases of Island hopping the grizzly bears have been euthanized.
Grizzly bears eat a wide variety of foods; insects, wild honey, roots, grasses, mountain sorrel, buffalo berries, huckleberries, fish, moose, elk, deer, sheep, and occasionally other bears.
Generally, maturity is reached at five years of age, with the breeding season starting in around the month of June into the end of July, the male chooses the mate and then he spends a month or so with her. Shortly afterwards he departs to resume his isolated lifestyle. The female, locates or burrows her den, where she will sleep through the winter, giving birth to two to three cubs in January, February or March. Weighing less than a half a kilo when born, newborn cubs gain weight very quickly, due to the high fat content of their mother's milk (about 33%).
Grizzly mothers form deep bonds with their cubs, fiercely protecting them from predators or adult males who have been known to kill and eat young cubs to trigger the females heat cycle and insure more reproduction; or alternately when food sources are scarce. She will keep her cubs close by her side until they are two years old. The high quality habitats of the coast mountain ranges of the mainland of British Columbia with its rich salmon rivers, extensive huckleberry patches, grassy slopes and river banks are capable of maintaining support to a large number of grizzly bears.
Eighty-one percent of historic grizzly bear range in BC maintains healthy populations, in fact, half of Canada's grizzly bear population lives in British Columbia and one out of every four bears remaining in North America resides here. The BC Wildlife Branch estimates that 10,000 to 13,000 Grizzly bears live in British Columbia; conservative estimates which are being corroborated by active research at 20 different research sites spread across the province.
Grizzly bears are neither threatened nor endangered in British Columbia; they are classified as vulnerable mainly because of social intolerance by humans to living in close proximity to the bears, industrialization, urbanization and easy access to garbage, farm animals and other human detritus.