Bear 101

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how to be bear safe in the Canadian Rockies

Born and raised in the Foothills of the Canadian Rockies, I always believed that bear safety was as engrained in my life as if it were a pamphlet stapled to the back of my birth certificate. It has seemed second nature, intuitive to coexist with wildlife in the wilderness with a deep sense of both respect and reverence, and just enough fear to keep you alert. An excuse to talk loudly and re-tell stories that nobody really cares about anymore. I was raised that the best defence is a good offence, and bear safety is no different - avoiding interaction (no matter what cartoons such as Winnie the Pooh and The Jungle Book teach us about these giants) has always been my primary goal. With the onset of social media and the abundance of public attention to our natural areas it becomes unavoidable that the beauty of the Canadian Rockies, with its world-class hiking, biking, canoeing, camping and other outdoor activities, would lead to these bears not only sharing their home with the "local" humans but people flocking to this area from all over the globe as well.

Unfortunately, your entrance fee to the mountain parks does not come with a "Bear 101" refresher course (as much as I would love for it to) and the largest threat to bear livelihood is human interaction.  I do believe that humans and wildlife can peacefully coexist and it is our job to facilitate that (we are visitors to their land and not the other way around, after all). With a few simple precautionary steps in an aim to limit our exposure while enjoying these outdoor spaces we can not only feel more comfortable in bear country but also work to ensure the survival of these beautiful animals.

types of bears found in canada

There are eight remaining species of bears in the world, of those only three populate Canada. The three species are the American black bear (not to be confused with the Eurasian black bear),  the brown bear (colloquially called Grizzly Bears in North America) and the polar bear. Only the American black bear and brown bears (which I will refer to as grizzlies for ease of reading) call the Canadian Rockies home. 

American Black Bear

The American black bear is the most “successful” of the modern bears. With a (roughly) estimated population of about 900,000 these bears are found in 42 of the 50 American States as well as 12 of the 13 Canadian Provinces and Territories (the exception being Prince Edward Island). 

It is estimated by scientists that there are approximately 16 subspecies of American black bear. Among these subspecies, one of the most popularized and intriguing is found on the west coast of Canada known by the scientific name Ursus americanus kermodei, the so-called “Kermode” or “spirit” bear.

These bears experience large variations in weight throughout the year due to health, food availability and their cyclical sleep patterns. Adult males can have weights ranging between 57 kg (125lbs) and 250kg (550lbs). The female is on average 33% smaller than the male, and typically weigh between 41kg (90lbs) and 170kg (375lbs). Even with their substantial size, American black bears can run at speeds up to 40km/h (25mph).

Grizzly Bear

The brown bear is almost always called the “grizzly” bear in both Canada and the United States, with the exception of one subspecies, found on Kodiak and nearby islands in Alaska, more popularly known as the “Kodiak bear.” Only one of the fourteen subspecies of brown bears is recognized for its Canadian status, and it goes by the somewhat ominous name Ursus arctos horribilis.

Substantially larger than the American black bears, the adult male grizzly bear on average weights between 250kg (550lbs) and 350kg (771lbs). The female adult grizzly bears typically weight between 125kg (275lbs) and 175 kg (385lbs). The average life expectancy for these bears is between 15 and 20 years. 

Despite its large size, the grizzly bear has been known to run at speeds of 55 kilometres per hour. It has well developed senses of smell and hearing that compensates for its poor eyesight.

Polar Bears

Along with the beaver, moose, loon, eagle and wolf; the Polar Bear is among the native wildlife species most often portrayed as Canadian. Polar bears are only native to the five countries that border, the Arctic Ocean - Canada, the United States of America, Denmark, Greenland and Norway. Canada is home to approximately half of the world’s estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears. For management purposes the polar bear has been divided into some 19 relatively discreet populations, of which 13 are in Canada. 

Grizzly and black bear behaviour is similar in many ways, but there are differences:

  • Black bears tend to be more tolerant of humans and often live near human settlements. Grizzlies do their best to stay away from people.

  • Black bears tend to be less aggressive than grizzlies.

  • Black bears often climb trees to escape threats; grizzlies are much worse at climbing trees.

  • Black bears prefer forested areas; grizzlies range throughout the landscape.

Image from BC Parks 

Image from BC Parks 

bear habitats

Black bear

Although called black bears, they can have coats in a variety of colours including black, brown, blue-gray, cinnamon and blond. Some rare albino "black" bears have also been recorded.

These bears primarily live in heavily forested, mountainous areas but they can also inhabit dry shrubby forests, swamps, coniferous forests and even the bare tundras of Canada. However, they will generally only live in the more exposed habitats is there are little to no other bears around to challenge them for food. 

As noted above, bears do not hibernate but do spend the colder months living in dens, these dens are typically built into caves, burrows or other sheltered spots. Sometimes they even make them in tree holes high above the ground. 

Grizzly Bear

The grizzly bear is a solitary animal. Individual bears have a home range, but these may overlap and are not fiercely defended. The grizzly's habitat can range from dense forest to alpine meadow or arctic tundra. The sole true predator of grizzly bears are humans, and the grizzly bear's range has shrunk as human populations expand and occupy its territory.

The grizzly bear is commonly known as a carnivore but in reality is omnivorous, which means it eats both meat and vegetation. It eats mammals and spawning salmon, when they are available, but relies mainly on vegetation for food. Plants make up to 90 percent of a grizzly's diet. It eats a variety of berries to gain fat deposits that help it survive the winter months. The grizzly bear will also take advantage of food and garbage that is left by humans, particularly at campsites and dumps - always ensure that you are cleaning up after yourself as to not expose and condition bears to human food. 

Due to its vast range of habitats the grizzly is found in western Canada and as far as the eastern boundary of Manitoba. It is also found in Alaska, Wyoming, Idaho and even a few in Washington state.

AVOID an encounter: the best approach

Bears are extremely sensitive to the stress of human activity. You can help protect these animals by avoiding encounters with them.

On a trail

  • Don’t surprise a bear - make noise. Call, sing, clap or talk loudly especially near streams and in areas of low visibility or high ambient noise.
    • Bear bells - Bear expert Stephen Herrero thinks it's possible that curious bears may actually be attracted to bear bells, and people have reported that loud, abrupt noises like the sounds of boat horns or small gas canister horns seem to work better for keeping bears away [source: Herrero].
  • Be alert. Watch for bears or their scat and tracks, any strange smells or disturbed vegetation. 
  • Stay together. Hike and bike in groups and don’t let children wander. Larger groups (4 or more) are less likely to have a negative bear encounter.
  • Watch your pets. Keep your dog on a leash at all times. Dogs can provoke defensive bear behaviour.
  • Use officially marked trails. Travel during daylight hours. Bears, like most wildlife, are most active at dawn and dusk.
  • Carry bear spray and know how to use it.
  • If you come across a large dead animal, leave the area immediately and report it to park staff. 
  • Dispose of fish offal in fast moving streams or the deep part of a lake, never along stream sides or lake shores.
Illustration by Pablo Iglesias

Illustration by Pablo Iglesias

In the backcountry

  • Use safe campsites - designated campsites are the best option.
  • Ensure food is stored safely -  use bear-safe food storage lockers when available.
  • If random camping, set up cooking, eating, and food storage areas at least 50 metres downwind from your tent. Ensure good visibility so animals cannot approach unseen. Avoid camping, cooking or eating near running water, thick brush, animal trails or berry patches. 
  • Keep yourself and campsite odour-free. Keep sleeping bags, tents, and sleeping clothes free of food, food odours or beverages. 
  • Leave smelly cosmetics at home. Store toiletries and personal items with food. 
  • Wash and store all dishes and food utensils immediately after use. Strain food particles from dishwater and store with garbage. Dump dishwater in designated areas or at least 50 metres from your sleeping area. 
  • If not, hang food by a rope system or from a tree branch in an area inaccessible to bears (at least 4 meters off the ground and 3 meters from the nearest tree).  Consider using a bear proof canister as an alternative to hanging food.
  • Use the triangle approach - Set up your tent, cooking area and food storage areas in a triangle pattern, about 50 m apart (see illustration below).
  • Pack out garbage—do not burn or bury it and do not dispose of it in pit privie.
  • To stay safe and protect wilderness, travel with two goals in mind: limiting your impact by avoiding encounters and managing your food, food smells and garbage. 

How to keep a "bare" campsite.

Note that contrary to popular belief,  bears are not true hibernators. In the winter its body temperature may drop a few degrees and its respiration may slow slightly, but it can remain active all winter - this is known as torpor. This means that bear encounters are rare, but still a possibility even in the winter months. 


If you encounter a bear

  1. Stay calm
    If the bear sees you, talk in a low, calm voice and then regardless if it has seen you or not.
  2. Back up slowly
    Never turn your back on a bear, or run. Running could trigger an attack.
  3. Do not stare
    The bear will see a direct stare as a challenge.
  4. Make yourself appear BIG.  
    Pick up small children and stay in a group. 
  5. Do not drop your pack. 
    It can provide you with protection.
  6. Give it space
    Make sure it has a way to get away, and that you are not blocking access to a bear’s cubs or its food.

Carry bear spray with you at all times on the trail, and know how to use it. Bear spray can be effective with some bears when used properly. Be aware that wind, spray distance, rain, freezing temperatures and product shelf life can all influence its effectiveness. Familiarize yourself with the proper use of bear spray (including the manufacturer’s specific instructions) and keep it readily accessible. 

What is bear spray and how do I use it?

Handling an ATTACK

Most encounters with bears end without injury. If a bear makes contact with you, you may increase your chances of survival by following these guidelines. In general, there are two kinds of attack: 

Defensive Attack

This is the most COMMON type of attack. 

If the bear is feeding, protecting its young and/or surprised by your presence it may see you as a threat. The bear will appear stressed or agitated and may vocalize. 

  • Try to appear non-threatening. 
  • Talk in a calm voice. 
  • When the bear stops advancing, start slowly moving away. 
  • If it keeps coming closer, stand your ground, keep talking, and USE YOUR BEAR SPRAY. 
  • If the bear makes contact, fall on the ground and PLAY DEAD. Lie on your stomach with legs apart and position your arms so that your hands are crossed behind your neck. This position makes you less vulnerable to being flipped over and protects your face, the back of your head and neck. Remain still until you are sure the bear has left the area. 

These defensive attacks are generally less than two minutes in duration. If the attack continues, it may mean it has shifted from defensive to predatory.

Predatory Attack

This type of attack is very RARE.  A bear may be curious, after your food, or testing its dominance. In the rarest case, it might be predatory–seeing you as potential prey. If a bear is stalking (hunting) you along a trail and then attacks. Or, the bear attacks you at night. 

The bear will be intent on you with head and ears up. 

  • Talk in a firm voice. 
  • Move out of the bear’s path. 
  • If it follows you, stop and stand your ground. 
  • Shout and act aggressively. 
  • Try to intimidate the bear. 
  • Try to escape into a building, car or up a tree(especially with grizzly bears who are poor climbers). 
  • If you cannot escape, do not play dead. 
  • Use your bear spray and FIGHT BACK.

FIGHT BACK! Intimidate that bear: shout; hit it with a branch, rock or hiking pole, do whatever it takes to let the bear know you are not easy prey. This kind of attack is very rare, but it is serious because it usually means the bear is looking for food and preying on you.

Roadside Bear Viewing: best practices

Seeing a bear in the wild is unfortunately one of the most sought after experiences in our national park. It is truly a unique and remarkable sight. This rare privilege however, comes with the important responsibility of minimizing the impact of your viewing activities on vulnerable bear populations.

If you are in a bear jam ... (a traffic jam caused by people viewing roadside bears)

  • Drive by slowly instead of stopping. This is the best way to minimize your impact on a roadside bear.
  • Warn other motorists by flashing your hazard lights.
  • Be extra cautious as sight lines are often blocked by improperly parked cars.
  • Be on the lookout for distracted drivers, people crossing the highway, or the possibility of a bear darting out in front of you.

  If you decide to stay ...

  • Pull over safely without blocking the driving lane (ideally at a pull-off). 
  • Observe and photograph bears from the safety of your car. 
  • View from afar. Please ensure that you are not crowding, approaching or obstructing a bear’s pathway.

What you can do to help bears survive ...

Summer month are critical for the survival of the Canadian Rockies population of bears. It is during this extremely important period that bears are working hard to accumulate enough fat reserves to survive the upcoming winter months. This time of year also corresponds to the busiest tourism season for our parks. With over half a million monthly visitors, it is extremely important for everyone to be diligent about not disrupting a bear’s feeding activities. The stakes are high; their survival depends on it!

Give bears space, space and more space!

Tourists often do not realize that their enthusiasm and excitement to take pictures and to view a bear in the wild causes them to get too close or to crowd these sensitive animals. These inadvertent behaviours force bears to abandon good foraging roadside for inferior habitat that is free of humans. It also requires them to expend unnecessary energy to travel and locate alternate places to feed.

The repeated impact of people getting too close to bears also causes them to lose their natural fear of humans. Bears that become comfortable around people and facilities are at a greater risk of being struck by vehicles along the highways or finding improperly stored food and garbage by negligent park users. Do your part by viewing bears responsibly, and by securing all scented items in a vehicle or storage locker and ensuring that all garbage is disposed of properly in bear proof garbage bins. 

How you can help protect bears

The best thing you can do for bears is to limit their exposure to you. 

  • DO NOT STOP when you see a roadside bear. 
  • Dispose all garbage in bear-proof garbage bins. 
  • Keep your picnic or camping site attractant-free. Move the food, coolers, dishes, recyclables, cosmetics and pet food into your vehicle or storage locker (tents are not bear-proof). 
  • Use only official trails only and leave the wild trails to wildlife. 
  • Respect closures and group access requirements—they are in place for your safety and to give bears a chance to use critical habitat undisturbed (see below for more information).
  • Pay attention to warnings—follow recommendations. Be careful when travelling through these areas, or choose a different route.

Do not feed any wildlife

Wildlife need to find their own natural food sources, not yours. Feeding wildlife causes them to become food conditioned and they may become increasingly aggressive.

Feeding may also:

  • attract wildlife to roadside areas where they can be injured or killed by vehicles.
  • lead to seeking out and eating garbage. Animals eat almost anything that has a scent.
  • cause small animals such as squirrels to become very aggressive and bite.
  • affect your health. Direct contact with wildlife may pose threats to human health such as injury or disease.

Use the wildlife-proof garbage bins to dispose of all unwanted food and garbage; not the ground or a fire pit. 

Wildlife will feed on garbage: littering means feeding wildlife. Ensure all garbage and recycling are disposed in wildlife-proof garbage bins immediately.

Access Restrictions

Access restrictions are put in place to manage how and when people can access a specific area. They are most often used when bears are using areas of key habitat during critical times of the year, as in mid-summer to fall when they may be intently feeding on berry crops. The restrictions are implemented to reduce the risk of a bear-human encounter and to allow bears to use important habitat with little human disturbance. 
Access restrictions are most often used when bears are using areas of key habitat during critical times of the year, as in mid-summer to fall when they may be intently feeding on berry crops. 

Group Access 

Group Access requires people to travel in a tight group of four or more. A tight group means that the person in front must be able to comfortably speak with the person in back at all times. Research indicates that larger groups that stay together and make noise are less likely to be attacked by a bear. 

Group Access was first used in 1999 in the Moraine Lake area of Banff National Park following several serious bear-human encounters. Complete area closures were initially implemented; then, Group Access was piloted to allow people to use the area in a way that minimized their risk of a bear encounter. The minimum group size requirement was changed in 2007 from six hikers to four, following expert review. 

Today, Group Access is used where recurring bear-human encounters have occurred or where the risk is high for such an encounter. 

Seasonal Access Restrictions 

Some access restrictions are routinely in effect during certain times of the year. 

Banff National Park: 

Yoho National Park: 

  • McArthur Valley 
  • Odaray Highline Trail

Kootenay National Park:

  • Sinclair Creek – Kindersley Pass Trail  

Glacier National Park:

  • Illecillewaet Valley
  • Asulkan Valley
  • Balu Pass
  • Always check Important Bulletins or contact park Visitor Centres for current restrictions, warnings and closures. 

Those who do not comply with access restrictions will be charged under the National Parks Regulations; the maximum fine is $25 000.

It is illegal to feed, entice or disturb any wildlife in a national park. Violators will be charged, be required to appear in court, the maximum fine is $25 000.

To report offenses call Banff Dispatch: 403-762-1470

additional resources

A huge thank you toTaylor Thomas Albright  who generously allowed me to share his images in this post.