By Moralea Milne
August 15, 2006
One of the most exciting events that can be experienced when you live in a rural area is capturing a glimpse of a large predatory animal. Very few of us will ever see the silent and elusive cougar, but bear sightings, while not an everyday occurrence, are not rare either. The surge of adrenaline that courses through your body when you meet one in your yard or along a trail shows that our prehistoric “flight or fight” reflexes are remarkably intact!
For some First Nations the bear signifies ‘mother,’ the protector of the woods and the earth or it can symbolise the spirit of sacrifice (definitely a mother trait!). Another interpretation is that the bear is strength and health and signifies vitality and courage.
Ursus americanus vancouveri are approximately 4.5-6 feet long, 135-360 lbs (females are smaller), about three feet at shoulder height and black with a brown muzzle and a white v shaped marking on the chest. Our Vancouver Island subspecies are distinguished by a massive skull, a remnant from their ancient pre-glaciation lineage. Bears have an excellent sense of smell and acute hearing and although they have a shambling, awkward gait, they can reach 25-30 miles per hour in short spurts. Most active at dawn and dusk, the bear who used our apple trees as its local grocery store was seen in the early morning, making for an exciting start to the day and forcing us to buy apples all winter.
Although many of us won’t actually meet a black bear face to face, we might see traces of their passing when hiking. Watch for these bear signs: territorial claw and bite marks on trees; rubbing trees-to which bits of fur have adhered; rocks and logs that have been overturned in the search for grubs; small mammal burrows that have been excavated and travel routes that show regular depressions where countless generations of bears, each carefully placing it’s foot within the proceeding bears footsteps, have worn paw-shaped hollows in the path. A most disconcerting sign is a fresh and steaming pile of bear scat!
Bears are solitary animals by nature and only meet for a short while to mate; several bears traveling together are most likely a mother and cubs, although numbers of bears will congregate at rich fishing sites and at garbage dumps.
Mating occurs in June to early July but implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterus is delayed until fall. There is a short gestation period and the ½ to one pound naked and vulnerable babies are born in January-February. Normally there are two or three cubs that will remain with the mother for two years, until just before the next mating season.
Black bears are generally considered secretive and shy omnivores but there is evidence that they can be aggressive predators. While they will eat almost anything, 80-95% of their diet is made up of vegetable matter - roots, nuts, berries, fruits and grasses, including the cambium layer just below the bark of trees. The will forage on carrion, fish, small animals, shellfish and insects, even newborn deer if they have the chance. Insects make up a significant part of their diet and the rotting, ant-filled logs left from a forest fire are an important component of their habitat. Food choices are opportunistic but also seasonal, young, luscious shots and roots in the spring, insects in the summer and fish, mushrooms, nuts and berries in the fall. Their need for large quantities of protein and fats for the lean winter months and to ensure reproductive success can bring them into contact with humans and our attendant garbage dumps. This is also when you are likely to find them raiding your apple trees and none too gently either!
Prime bear habitat consists of forests of mixed coniferous and deciduous trees with a thick understory, riparian areas, regenerating burn sites, high tidal and freshwater marshes, ocean shorelines at low tide and wet and dry meadows. Mothers with cubs will use large diameter trees with deeply furrowed bark as safe bedding sites for the young cubs; the grooved bark facilitates the cubs’ ability to climb and escape from predators, especially adult male bears. Large hollow trees, logs, snags and stumps are used as preferred den sites, even up to 25 metres above ground and there is concern that the usual 50-100 year logging rotations will not be able to sustain the supply of suitable denning trees. Forest fires speed the decomposition of large logs and twenty years after a fire, ant “delis” are at their peak. Black bears require secure travel routes between their foraging sites with adequate cover; females with cubs avoid open areas if possible.
Black bears are resourceful and flexible and they can tailor their behaviour to maximize their food requirements. And that is where the trouble begins. Try to think like a bear, life in the wild is tough and unrelenting and if you can’t find food, the kids will die. If you could find places to satisfy your huge energy requirements with very little effort (think all you can eat buffet) do you think you would take advantage of them? Bee hives appear to be almost irresistible, so are the apple trees in “the back forty”, poorly run garbage dumps and full garbage cans left to develop their special enticing aroma. Campers with poor food safety skills must seem like a deluxe catering service, the bears don’t even have to go in search of the strangely satisfying food, it is brought to them!
Black bears have a 20-30 year lifespan with almost no natural predators and remarkably healthy constitutions. According to some sources, “more than 90% of black bear deaths after the age of 18 months are the result of gunshots, trapping, motor vehicle accidents, or other interactions with humans”.
Despite our cultural biases, bears are neither evil nor adorable teddy bears. They can provide a great and thrilling pleasure when viewed from a secure location and they are, like us, one of the top predators on this island. We in Metchosin are privileged that we still provide suitable habitat to support some of these awe inspiring creatures, with a little forethought we can keep both them and ourselves safe.
The BC Government has produced a “Safety Guide to Bears at Your Home”.
Please read the document online at: wlapwww.gov.bc.ca/wld/documents/bear_hm.htm Below are some excerpts from the brochure.
Some Points to Reduce the Risk of Attracting Bears
Garbage containers should be stored indoors or in a locked shed.
Don’t put meat, fish or fruit in your compost and add lime to speed composting and reduce odours.
Pick your fruit trees as soon as ready and don’t allow fruit to fall and remain on the ground.
If You Spot a Bear in a Residential Area or in a Tree with People Nearby:
Remain calm. Often, the bear is just passing through and, if it finds no food source, will simply move on.
Keep away from the bear. Warn others to keep away as well, and bring your children and pets into the house.
If the bear appears to be threatening, persistent, or aggressive, call the Conservation Officer (391-2225). If conflict should occur, do not attempt to resolve it yourself. The Conservation Officer is a professional and has been trained to deal with wildlife.