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by Jamie Harron

Bears, particularly black bears, have been in the news quite a lot lately. Sadly, it has not always been for good reasons, although there has been some good news. The reports of bear poaching, bear attacks, nuisance bears and the cancelling of the spring hunt have raised public awareness. Propaganda flies, and it is hard to discover what is true and what is not.

The Bear Facts

Bears are big animals. Adults stand close to three feet at the shoulder and are approximately five to six feet in length. They have thick, powerful legs with five toes on each foot. Each toe has a curved non-retractable claw. Their skulls are massive and thick. Weighing in at between two and six hundred pounds, they are formidable creatures. Males are substantially larger than the females. It is important to note that, although they are potentially very dangerous, they are rarely dangerous.

Moulting once a year at the end of hibernation, their fur is thick, coarse and in most cases, black. However, in the West two other distinct colours occur. These are the cinnamon-coloured black bears and the white "spirit bears."

Black bears have bad eyesight, but acute hearing and sense of smell.

Bear Habits

Bears are essentially solitary. They pair up only briefly in the mating season and then go their separate ways. If you watch bears at a place where they regularly gather, such as a garbage pit, you will see that they almost studiously avoid and ignore each another.

Cubs will stay with their mother for approximately one year. Other bears would attack and kill the small cubs were it not for the mother's savage defence. This is not to say she will automatically attack as soon she perceives a threat. If danger looms, the cubs will be quickly sent up a tree. Their mother might leave the immediate area, but she will stay within earshot.

Besides protection, black bears use trees for a variety of reasons. They will also climb to eat buds, young shoots and fruits. Rearing up, they will scratch as high as possible to leave claw marks on the bark. It is thought that these markings are territorial; perhaps the height of the scratches tells other bears how big their creator is.

Their home territory is approximately 78 square miles. Older bears may range up to 15 miles from their home base. Despite the territorial markings, there is, in fact, much overlapping of territories with apparently little or no conflict.

They are most active at night particularly when near humans. Despite their large size, they can move very quietly although they do make a variety of squeals, grunts and growls. Little bears cry when they are frightened or hungry and they will hum when contented.

Eating 11 to 17 pounds of food a day, bears are omnivorous, but greatly prefer vegetable matter to meat. Their annual diet is approximately 76.7% plants, 7.4% insects and 15.2% carrion. Small mammals provide 0.7% of their diet, although they may, on occasion, eat calf moose, deer fawns and - rarely - domestic calves.

Upon awakening in the spring, they will be in fairly good shape. However, this condition rapidly deteriorates, as there is little food. During this period, they will eat insects found in rotten logs they have torn apart, winter carrion and even spruce needles and tree buds. As summer arrives, they shift their attention to fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and hazelnuts. They also appear to enjoy roots and cow parsnips. By autumn, apples, grasshoppers, beechnuts, acorns and any other berries and fruits will be eaten. These are dietary staples, but they will also take mice, rabbits, fish, and ground hogs. Their love of sweet corn and honey is a well-known fact. Bears can double their body weight between spring and autumn.


Females reach sexual maturity when about four to five years of age. Males take about one year longer. Sows are in oestrous every two years from about June 20 to July 10 However, they are sexually active between mid-April and late August. Other than these brief noisy pairings, they remain alone. Females exhibit "delayed implantation" where the fertilized eggs will lie dormant for several months. They will become implanted in the uterus in October or November. From fertilization, gestation lasts about 220 days; averaging two per litter, the babies are born between mid January and early February. They are remarkably small, about the size of squirrels, although mum could easily weigh in at 300 pounds. Naked and helpless at birth, their eyes open at about five to six weeks. Leaving the den in April, they are weaned at five to six months and are self-sufficient at six to eight months. However, the young will den with their mother the following winter, but leave her before she mates. The cubs may den together for another winter or perhaps go their separate ways, permanently.


In preparation for hibernation, bears put on as much weight possible to build up a 100 pound layer of fat. During hibernation they will neither eat, drink nor defecate. Searching out the shelter of a cave, rock crevice, hollow log or even underneath the sweeping branches of a spruce or fir tree, they will make a bed from local materials. Although they do not experience true hibernation, their body temperature will drop from their normal 38 degrees centigrade to 31-34 degrees and their breathing rate drops to two to four breaths per minute. Bears are not fully asleep in this period, and it is argued that if you pass close by their den, they will be aware of your presence. They can be aroused during the winter and this can be dangerous for the bear. If they leave their den because of a disturbance, they may not find another suitable place and will consequently die. They normally leave their shelters in April, often because of the melting snows or the early spring rains that flood their dens.

Never 'DIS' a Bear

Bear-watching can be very exciting. Witness the number of people who show up at countryside garbage dumps throughout the summer months just for the opportunity to see them. Of course, part of the excitement is the sense of danger even if you are locked in your car. Respect is a key word for bear-watchers!

Look for bears in open woodland that has the dense undergrowth that these animals need to feed and hide in. They will follow regular trails making repeat journeys to areas of fruits and berries. Watch for signs of digs for beechnuts, overturned logs or rocks and torn-apart, rotten tree stumps. They will dig up yellow-jacket nests and ant nests looking for food. Other signs may be broken branches on cherry, oak or beech trees. Bears will cover their kills or carrion with whatever they can find to try and protect it from scavengers. If you find such a site leave the area immediately! You could be in serious danger.

Black bear scats are variable and reflect their seasonal diets. They may measure 1 1/4 inches to 2 1/4 inches in diameter and 6 inches in length. Turn over the scat and look to see if the grass is still green underneath. If so, then the bear is probably still in the area. Take sensible precautions.

Some sources are calling every bear that is sighted as a 'nuisance bear.' This is patently ridiculous. These arguments are simply propaganda. Most bears would rather run away as fast as possible than hang about near humans. We need to put the 'danger' into some kind of perspective. It is estimated that dogs bite 500,000 Canadians every year. These bites, especially to children, often result in horrible injuries and even death. So in reality, you are in much more danger from dogs, perhaps your own dog, than from black bears. Whitetail deer cause a huge number of car accidents every year, some of which are fatal. So you are in much more danger from whitetails than from black bears. It is probably also true that you are in much more danger from lightening strikes than from black bears. Bear attacks are extremely rare.

Bears themselves face a variety of dangers, particularly from poachers. Bear gall is erroneously thought to have medicinal value in Eastern traditional medicine. It is thought that the demand for bear gall bladders has been responsible for the near-extinction of the Asiatic black bear. Gall bladders sell for about $5 to $8 per gram. An average gall bladder weighs approximately 25 grams. This is a lucrative market. In Quebec a large network of poachers was caught in November 2002. Here in Eastern Ontario a poacher was recently caught and heavily fined. There are an estimated 500,000 black bears in North America, a rich target for poachers. Like all our wildlife, bears are under a huge threat.

Upclose and personal

Dealing with bears involves respect. Last year I entered an active garbage pit one evening to get some photos of the bears. Standing away from the garbage, I waited at the top of the fill for about a half hour. I was surprised by the silent and sudden approach of a large, male bear. It came much closer than I had anticipated. He had come around the side of the hill to perhaps - like me - have an overview of the dump. He stopped, looked, sniffed loudly and wandered off to get his supper. Other bears, all smaller, arrived. Ignoring me, they carried on with their meals. I finished my roll of film and proceeded to pack up to leave.

As I bent down to place my camera in its bag, the original big bear turned and began to move towards me in what I interpreted as too much interest. His body language seemed different. This was a "Depends moment!"

Flushed with adrenalin, I stood up, spreading out both my arms to look as large as possible. He stopped, gave a short woof and left wandering away from the dump. (Note to self: When meeting bears look big on all occasions.) Had he come closer, I next would have started making noises as loud as I possibly could by shouting and clapping my hands. All of these things should deter a black bear. If not, defend yourself with anything at hand; in this case, it would have been my tripod. Like all of us, bears do not like pain. Do not run! Bears will see you as prey and give chase. You cannot defend yourself with your back turned. Most bear threats, as rare as they are, can be dealt with in a safe manner. Bears will even 'false charge' in order to get you to go away.

Bears have few enemies. In the West, they face some danger from grizzlies, and of course, from man everywhere. In summary, bears just want to be left alone.

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 42, Spring 2003. Copyright Jamie Harron.





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