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