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Black Bear

(Ursus americanus)

Introduction

Bears have been in the news lately… bears in conflict with humans and, in our area, Black Bears encountering life-ending interactions when crossing highways.  On the Sunshine Coast, in the Coast Reporter, it was reported that a black bear died on August 10, 2023 in the Roberts Creek area after a suspected vehicle strike.

In the previous two weeks, three other bears died on roadways north of Pender Harbour. Coastal Wildlife Rescue (CWR) is aware of 5 vehicle-caused bear deaths, a high number for a single season.

 

This web page is intended to present the Black Bear, examine bear behaviour and share the best advice about how to co-exist safely and respectfully. 

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Range

As can be seen from the above maps, the Black Bear historically inhabited the majority of forested areas in North America. Today it inhabits only 60 % of that original range.

 

The Black Bear is the most abundant bear species in Canada. Preferring sparsely populated forested areas, they roam all of Canada with the exception of Prince Edward Island and the southern prairie farmlands.

 

British Columbia has one of the highest populations of black bears in the world with estimates ranging from 120,000 to 150,000 animals. Most of BC is considered “bear country” with bears living in a wide variety of ecosystems. The Black Bear is at home on the entire Sunshine Coast and can be found from the water’s edge to the top of Mount Elphinstone.

Characteristics

Black Bears can be black, dark brown, cinnamon, yellow-brown, blond, blue-grey, and white. Which raises the question….why were they named “Black” Bears? Apparently the explanation is that east of the Great Plains, nearly all Black Bears are black and since these were the first bears early settlers saw, this name became attached and stuck. The Black Bears we see in Pender Harbour are  also mainly black, often with light brown muzzles. 

 

Nose to tail, adults range from 1.3 to 1.9 metres (4.3 to 6.2 feet) in length and weigh 60–300 kg (132–661 pounds).  Males can vary from 20% to 60% larger than females with the largest males growing to 2 metres long (6.6 feet) and 409 kg (902 pounds). The body is bulky, the rump is higher than the shoulder and the tail is very short. The ears are rounded and the eyes are small. The lips of the black bear, unlike those of other animals, are free from the gums, and the bear can use them and a long, agile tongue to eat such foods as tiny blueberries and ants.

 

The feet have naked pads and five toes with relatively short curved claws. Black Bears are plantigrade animals, walking flat-soled like humans.

 

Senses:  Bears are renowned for their great sense of smell and can locate food over one kilometre away. Their eyesight and hearing are as good, or better, than humans. The myth that bears have poor eyesight has likely arisen from their habit of standing up as if to get a better look. What is more likely is that the bear is curious and is standing up to increase its opportunity to see, hear and smell.

Mobility:  Black Bears can run up to 30 miles an hour and are good swimmers and proficient tree climbers. The photo below shows a mother and cub climbing for tent caterpillars.

Intelligence:  Black Bears have large brains compared to their body size and are described as among the most intelligent native nonhuman animals in North America. Many modern bear biologists accredit them with the equivalent IQ of the great apes, some even dare give them the equivalent intelligence of a 3-year-old human.They have navigational skills superior to humans and excellent long-term memories. They can generalize to the simple concept level. Mothers show affection for cubs and moan and cry for a significant time period in apparent grief over the loss of a cub.

As this short video shows, Black Bears are clever indeed:

Life Cycle

Generally, females reach sexually maturity around four years of age and breed every two to three years after that. Certain factors, such as food scarcity, account for females not bearing their first litter until they are six or seven years old. Some males can breed when they are one and a half years old, but commonly males don’t mature sexually until age five or six. In BC, mating usually takes place from early June to mid-July. After the female successfully mates, the embryo inside her does not implant (or begin to develop) until October or November. Female Black Bears give birth to one to five (but commonly two) cubs in January or February  during the period they are hibernating. The cubs are blind, hairless and about 400 grams in weight when they are born. They nurse while the mother continues hibernating and weigh 3 to 5 kg when they leave the den in spring.

Weaned between July and September, the cubs will stay with their mother and hibernate with her through the following winter. Having taught the cubs how to survive, the mother will usually be ready to breed again the following spring and will drive the cubs out to live on their own.

 

Black bears can live for 25 to 30 years in captivity, but their life-span in the wild is usually much shorter.

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Habitat, Dens and Hibernation

Although the Black Bear is found in a variety of habitats, it prefers heavily wooded areas, mixed coniferous–deciduous forests, dense bushland and areas where there are few humans.  In the fall, as days grow shorter and cooler, a Black Bear begins looking for a burrow, a cave, a rotten stump or a space under fallen trees to serve as a den. Generally females line their dens with grass, ferns or leaves and retreat to their dens earlier than males.  Most bears use a different den each year.

When cold weather arrives, bears become increasingly lethargic and enter their dens. Hibernation can be more an adaptation for escaping winter food scarcity than an adaptation for escaping winter cold. During hibernation their heart rate drops from about 50 beats per minute to around 10. Oxygen intake decreases by half, and body temperature drops by about 3 degrees C. According to the Sunshine Coast Bear Alliance, “It is a common misconception that all bears hibernate. In fact, studies now show that most bears enter a prolonged state called torpor (state of mental and physical inactivity) where their body temperatures remain high, but their heart rate slows down to approximately 8 beats per minute.”

 Foraging and Diet

Understanding the Black Bear’s behaviour is largely about understanding its search for food and what it eats. Generally Black Bears are opportunists that consume a variety of food items as they become available throughout the year. They are omnivorous mammals, with vegetation making up about 80% of their diet.

 

In Spring, when bears emerge from their dens, they seek out lush greens such as grasses, sedges, horsetails, dandelions, clover, willow catkins and even skunk cabbage tubers. Flowers and leaves are preferred shortly after they first emerge; when they are highest in protein and lowest in cellulose. Important sources of protein in the spring may include newborn moose calves or deer fawns, or spawning suckers.


In Summer, insects, especially larvae,  provide protein. Colonies of ants and nests of bumblebees and wasps  are excavated and eaten. Once berries start ripening, bears will switch to these high calorie foods. Other foods include rodents, fish, carrion and sometimes young deer, elk or moose.


In Fall, Black Bears enter a period of excessive eating (hyperphagia) in order to accumulate enough body fat to sustain them through the winter. They may forage for as many as 20 hours a day on available vegetation, late producing fruit and berries, spawning salmon, hazelnuts, acorns and beechnuts . 


In Winter, with the arrival of cold weather, the Black Bear  enters its den and ceases to eat, drink, urinate or defecate. During this hibernation time, it is able through quite an amazing biochemical process to recycle metabolic wastes into nutrients. However, the Black Bear will still lose up to a quarter of its weight before it emerges from its den in the spring. 

 

Food Availability:  In the spring, food items can generally be depended upon to be available in predictable amounts. Even so, the bear may lose weight at this time or be fortunate to maintain its weight.  The bear’s survival relies on the timing of availability and the abundance of food items in summer and fall…and, as we know, these can vary greatly from one year to the next.  Bears can double their body weight in years when berries and fruits are abundant. But a lean year (berry crops ripen late and shrivel early) has a direct effect on survival and on the proportion of adult females that reproduce successfully. Survival of the current year’s cubs can be low following berry crop failure, and few females will produce cubs the following year.

Ecosystem Contribution

Making the Forest Fertile:    Bears often drag their catch onto stream banks or into the edge of the forest to eat. They consume the oily roe, belly, brain and skin of a salmon and then abandon the rest of the carcass. These fishy remains become food for small animals and insects and eventually break down into nutrients which get added to the soil and benefit the surrounding trees and plants. The transport of seeds via bear scat aids the dispersal of many species of berry-producing shrubs.

Human-Bear Interface

While bears do not live in extended family groups or hunt together, they can co-exist in close proximity. Often this is because plentiful food resources such as salmon in a stream or berries on a mountainside are concentrated in a small area. If bears are not shot at or harassed, this same tolerance is extended to humans. Bears habituate, or become accustomed, to people in the same way they do to each other.  The better we know these neighbours, the fewer misunderstandings will exist.

Bears must eat a lot of food and when they are hungry and/or when berry crops fail, they begin searching for food …food, ideally, that is easy to acquire, abundant, and high in protein and energy. It is inevitable that this brings them into contact with humans.

 

Here is an example; On Oct 11, 2023 CBC reported this unusual shoplifter at Tiptons Gas Bar in Lake Cowichan, B.C.

Throughout North America in the early 1900s, the attitudes of the public and of community and park agencies toward bear management was generally reactive; problem bears were simply destroyed. Today that attitude is changing although Black Bears are still killed.

The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy is responsible for the effective protection, management and conservation of BC’s water, land, air and living resources. The following chart shows  Government Conservation Service Officer (COS) data: "Predator Conflicts and Statistics” for Black bears in BC in the month of August, 2023, going back to 2011.  If you wish to see all the data just click here, then select Black Bear:    //www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/plants-animals-ecosystems/wildlife/human-wildlife-conflict

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Over the years, increasingly-proactive strategies evolved. In 1969 the BC Conservation Foundation (BCCF) was established.  In 1998, BCCF was approached by members of the Revelstoke Bear Committee and the Provincial Wildlife Conflict Committee to adopt a leadership role in expanding the Bear Aware program to other regions of the province. Since that time, BCCF has helped to deliver the Bear Aware (now WildSafeBC) Community Programs to residents in hundreds of communities across British Columbia.

 

The Bear Smart Community Program followed, in 2002, as a proactive conservation initiative that encouraged efforts by communities, businesses and individuals to reduce human-bear conflicts. It is a co-operative venture that recognizes the responsibility to manage bear-human conflicts rests with everyone and will require participation from the provincial government, municipal governments and local citizens to be effective.   It is community led, entirely voluntary on the part of the community, and acknowledges that each community will be unique in the conflicts that occur and the opportunities that exist to reduce those conflicts.

 

Locally, the Sunshine Coast Bear Alliance, established in 2019, is also working to end human-bear conflict on the Sunshine Coast, their motto: “replace fear with knowledge.”

 

The following quote is from a Sunshine Coast Bear Alliance article which appeared in the Harbour Spiel entitled “How Not to Kill Black Bears” (April 2022).

 

“Bears that continue to access human food may be deemed a safety risk by the Conservation Officer Service.

 

Unfortunately, relocation is rarely an effective measure when managing bears that have become accustomed to non-natural food sources. The needless death of the bear can be the end result of what is often referred to as “human-bear conflict,” even though the bear is just doing what they do naturally which is foraging for food.”

 

In 2023, there was little rain, a late production of berries and the early shrivelling of plants and vines. This is never an optimum situation especially when Black Bears are entering the critical “need-to-eat-excessively-before-winter” stage. As we absorb this, we also read (Victoria Colonist, Oct. 14, 2023) that 2 more bears have been shot. Why? Because “they showed minimal fear of humans”, had become “conditioned to human food” and “had access to unsecured garbage”.

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How can Humans Help and Respect

"It is illegal under the British Columbia Wildlife Act to either intentionally or unintentionally feed bears or other wildlife." 

 

Summarized from the Sunshine Coast Bear Alliance:

 

Discontinue using conventional bird feeders, including hummingbird feeders and attract birds with water or sand baths, flowering plants and shrubs or intermittent plate feeding, as long as any fallen seeds are collected.

 

Collect fallen fruit daily or pick before ripening. 

 

Do not leave any pet food or dishes outside. Feed pets indoors or bring used pet dishes inside immediately.

 

If you have chickens, beehives and other small livestock, please use electric fencing to keep your animals protected. Store all livestock feed inside a bear proof enclosure. 

 

Store barbeques inside or in a bear proof shed. If grills must be kept outside, burn off food residues using high heat and clean grease traps after each use.

 

Refrain from using outdoor fridges or freezers. Outdoor fridges and freezers are prohibited in certain areas of the Coast. If you do have these appliances on your property, keep them in an enclosed garage or a bear proof shed. Always keep garage doors closed when not in attendance. 

 

If you must store garbage and compost bins in an open carport, attach bins, ideally with a chain, to a stationary object so as to prevent tipping by a curious bear. Spraying the bins with Pine Sol may also help to deter a bear from accessing your garbage. 

 

Separate garbage, organics and recycling containers. Freeze odourous items and place in your garbage the morning of pick-up and only place bins at the curb the morning of collection for your area. 

 

Twenty-two cars containing attractants were accessed by bears in 2022. Where. It is imperative to keep vehicles free of any food and beverages, used food and beverage containers, scented products and toiletries (even car air fresheners), pet food, bird seed, and recycling containers. Keep doors and windows locked at all times.  

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Bear Smart Resources and Publications

A brochure outlining the Bear Smart Community program, as well as a technical background report, are available. The background report is for use by communities that are interested in pursuing this initiative and provides detailed information on each of the criteria, including examples of their successful application.

Learn the differences and similarities between Black Bears and Grizzly Bears with the. Take the quiz and see if you know your bears.

References

BC Conservation Foundation, founded in 1969 to promote and assist in the conservation of the fish and wildlife resources of the Province of British; also a portal to Wildsafe BC: Columbia;  https://bccf.com/welcome

Wildsafe BC (formerly Bear Aware) - Pamphlet on Black Bear: https://wildsafebc.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Blackbear-02-28-2018-min.pdf

 

Bear Smart - Formed in 2002 - a proactive conservation initiative:

https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/plants-animals-ecosystems/wildlife/human-wildlife-conflict/staying-safe-around-wildlife/bears/bear-smart

Sunshine Coast Bear Alliance - Formed in 2019 - Replacing Fear with Knowledge:   https://www.scbearalliance.com/about-black-bears

Wise About Bears - "Bear With Us Inc., Registered Canadian Charity #898978416RR0001"- Excellent resource on Black Bears:  https://wiseaboutbears.org/black-bears/the-bear-family/a-bears-quest-for-food/

 

Coastal Bear Den Identification Manual, Helen Davis, M.Sc., R.P. Bio. Artemis Wildlife Consultants:  http://artemiswildlife.com/AWC_Bear_Den_ID_manual_v2.pdf

 

Artemis Wildlife Consultants, Protecting British Columbia's Wildlife Through Research and Conservation:   http://artemiswildlife.com/bear-dens

Creston Valley - Black Bear information:

https://letstalk.creston.ca/wildlife-education/news_feed/black-bears

 

Western Wildlife Outreach, Washington based organization - education and advocacy:

http://westernwildlife.org/black-bear-outreach-project/biology-behavior-3/

North American Bear Center - Hidden World of Black Bears: https://bear.org/bear-facts/hidden-world-of-black-bears/

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