Bears of Canada

Canada is home to three species of bear. Though people generally fear them and consider them dangerous, bears are usually shy of humans and prefer to stay away from us. Over the years, though, development into previously uninhabited wilderness has caused us to come into contact with bears more and more often. This gives us all the more reason to understand and respect these rarely seen and underappreciated animals.

Did you know?

  • All bears live solitary lives, except for mothers with cubs. They will only spend time with a partner during mating season and any congregation in larger numbers seems to happen by chance at prime feeding sites.
  • Bears can generally be expected to live for 20 to 25 years.
  • Despite being well-equipped as carnivores, all bears are omnivorous and enjoy eating plants.
  • Bears mate in spring or summer months then give birth to one to four cubs sometime during the winter, after a gestation of 180- 266 days. Cubs are furless, blind and weigh only about a pound when they are born. They are weaned at around five months of age but stay with their mothers for two to three years.
  • Most bears hibernate during winter. That means that their body temperature drops, their heartbeat and breathing slow down, and they enter a very deep sleep. They prepare by eating a great deal to build up fat, then by digging a den under rocks or in the hollow of a tree, or by choosing a cave or crevice. They stay in the den from late fall until early spring, and the extra layer of fat keeps them alive while they are there. Some bears just take cover, and don’t truly hibernate. The grizzly bear, for example, will stay in its den, but sleeps normally and can easily be woken up.
  • Males and females can easily be told apart by their size. On average, female bears are about half the size of the males of their species.
  • Bears are attracted to human food garbage, which is the cause of most human/bear encounters. If you live near bear habitat make sure all your garbage is kept securely indoors or in containers that are designed to be bear-proof. If you are camping in or near bear habitat keep all food away from your sleeping area, preferably in a bear-proof container and/or hung between two trees. A little education can ensure that encounters with bears will be unlikely and will help protect you and the bear should you come across each other.

The Brown Bear

The ten subspecies of brown bear occupy a wide variety of habitats in Europe, Japan, Canada, and the US. They can be found on the plains, in the forests, the tundra, and in sub-alpine mountain areas. At one time, brown bears could be found throughout the North American continent. However, excessive hunting and destruction of the animals’ habitat have all but wiped out these impressive creatures. The situation is much the same in Europe, where the brown bears of Switzerland were hunted to extinction in the 19th century. Brown bears still live in Northern Italy, though, and Swiss authorities have been setting aside land that they hope will serve as a corridor for bears to return to the area. They were very encouraged to see one bear had found its way through in July 2005.

The brown bear can be distinguished from other species by its large shoulder hump, which is caused by the highly developed muscles it uses for digging. It has very long front claws that are also used for digging or for catching fish. Brown bears are omnivores. They have a primarily vegetarian diet, eating many plants, like grasses, bulbs, seeds, berries, and roots. They will eat insects, fish, and small mammals, and the grizzly bears that live in the Canadian Rockies will also hunt large animals like moose, caribou, and mountain goats.

The Grizzly bear, found in Western Canada and Alaska, is one of the best known sub species of brown bear in North America. It is known for aggressive behaviour, but it wasn’t named for a grisly disposition. The bear earned its moniker from its grizzled fur, which turns from almost black to a white, silvery colour at the tips. Brown bears vary a lot in size but the largest male grizzlies can weigh up to 1500 pounds.

The American Black Bear

The American black bear is found in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Black bears are smaller than other species of bear and the least aggressive of the bears found in Canada.

Black bears do tend to be a uniform black colour, but among the 16 subspecies there are also brown, pale blue (glacier bear), and white varieties (kermode bear). They are short-haired and medium-sized, often with a small white patch on the chest. A black bear could beat a human in a tree-climbing race any day. The bears have short, curved claws that make them expert climbers. A mother bear will often coax her cubs into trees to keep them out of harm’s way. Black bears feel safest in forested areas and avoid open spaces. A female’s territory can cover 10 to 40 square km but males occupy much larger spaces that overlap with those of females. Black bears feed mostly on plant matter, such as grasses, herbs, fruits, berries, honey, nuts and seeds, but a small percentage of their diet is made up of animals, such as insects, fish, small mammals, carcasses and rubbish.

American black bears are the most common species of bears, though some individual populations are at risk of isolation and starvation. The biggest threat to a black bear is posed by trophy hunters who kill an estimated 30,000 individuals each year for “fun.”

Polar Bear

The polar is by far the largest species of bear. It is likely that natural selection has favoured only the heartiest animals for survival in the polar north. The males usually weigh anywhere between 800 and 1300 pounds, but they have occasionally been found weighing up to 1800 pounds. The only bears that will actively hunt humans, polar bears are the most aggressive bear species, even in captivity.

On land or ice, polar bears can run at up to 40km/h, but they are also well adapted for travel in cold water. They have slightly webbed paws, nostrils that close underwater, and water-repellent fur that can be shaken dry.

Polar bears are the largest land carnivores, though they spend more time living on ice floes than on land. They are patient hunters, sometimes waiting days next to a hole in the ice, before they finally catch one of the seals that has come up for air. Plants aren’t available for most of the year in the Artic so, unlike other bears, the polar bear is almost entirely carnivorous. They will eat berries and other vegetation during the very short summer, though.

The weather in the Arctic isn’t exactly pleasant, but polar bears are specially equipped to survive the harsh conditions of the polar north, where the temperature is well below freezing almost all the time. In addition to having a thick layer of insulating fat, the polar bear has black skin in order to absorb as much heat from the sun as possible. Though it appears to be white, their fur is translucent, which allows the light to get through to the skin. Unlike their more southerly cousins, polar bears do not hibernate in winter, with the exception of expectant mothers, who prepare a den and hibernate when pregnant to ensure that cubs are born in safety.

A study by Drs. Georgia Mason and Ros Clubb in the journal Nature showed that animals with larger home ranges in nature are much more likely to be stressed and miserable in captivity. Polar bears have indeed struggled in many zoos, where their enclosure can be as small as one millionth the size of their natural home range, which can be anywhere from 5,180 to 300,400 square km. Given their need for frigid surroundings, their highly aggressive attitude, and the proven tendency to feel stressed in small areas, polar bears are even less suited for captivity than most wild animals.


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