One of the best locations for bear sighting where you can find grizzlies and especially black bears in great number is British Columbia in Canada.
When hiking or camping in bear country we should do our best to leave bears natural habitat undisturbed and to minimize unwilling bear encounters. Because we are the ones responsible for our safety and that of an animal.
Even though bears would very rarely attack humans, a bear can be a very dangerous animal if surprised, provoked or habituated to humans. Habituated means the bear is used to being around humans because it associates people with food. Black bears are less of a threat to the safety of backcountry visitors than grizzly bears. But in both cases, some precautions should be taken.
Which bear was that?
In some national parks, you can find them both, black bear and grizzly bear. When you look at them it may seem like it should be easy to tell which bear is which.
But the truth is that they have some similarities that can mislead you. Like the fact that both, black bears and grizzlies can be black, brown and blond in color. Or, for example, we also might be thinking that grizzlies are bigger. The fact is that males are, but also a female grizzly can be at the same size as a black bear. It’s more than clear that the color and size won’t be enough to tell them apart.
The best way to make the difference between the two at a distance is by their body shape. Grizzlies have a hump on their shoulders which is a muscle that gives them a strength to dig for roots with their long claws. This hump is higher than their rump. They also have a dished profile and smaller rounded ears. The correct scientific name for the grizzly species though is a brown bear.
Black bears’ rump is higher than their shoulders. They have a straight profile, bigger slightly pointed ears, and shorter claws that give them the ability to easily climb up a tree. And even though they are called black bears not all of them are black.
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What do bears like to eat
Grizzlies and black bears have a similar diet. When you see them so big and massive you may think grizzlies are a meat-eaters. More than 80% of their diet
They also eat insects (ants, bees and ladybird), migrating salmon fish when available but sometimes can prey on larger mammals such as deer or elk. Knowing which food is available for them during the year and where you can find it in that area can help minimize unwilling encounters when hiking or camping in bear country. Or it might better your chances for bear viewing and sighting in the natural parks.
For example, in spring grizzlies will dig for roots while black bears will feed on sedge and grasses. Keep in mind that the first vegetation starts to grow on roadsides so don’t get surprised if you see them on the roads during these time of the year. When you see a roadside bear though do not stop the car. Instead, slow down take a quick photo from the safety of your car and move on. In summer much of their food will include leafy plants while in autumn they would enjoy consuming berries and salmon. Be sure to find them around these sources of food since they have to eat a lot to stay in shape. In winter bears hibernate and live on their reserves of fat.
Bears have an excellent sense of smell and can locate a dead animal from wide distances. Unlike bears when humans sense that same smell it means that they are probably too close to the dead animal or maybe to the alive bear too feeding on its cache. And when bears defend their food and cubs are most dangerous. So make sure you never come between a bear and her cub. Keep in mind these signs when in bear country. You don’t want to surprise a hungry grizzly.
If human food is available they will take advantage of it. If bears are fed even once with our food they learn that people are a source of food. Wild bears have a natural fear of people and they will avoid people. But if fed with human food they will abandon their natural food for human and stop having that same fear of people.
Bears will remember an easy source of food and will keep returning if food is available. So, they can become aggressive in searching for human food when approaching campgrounds or garbage and urban areas. It is more likely that they will become frequent visitors to campgrounds or towns where food or garbage may be improperly stored. Because of that they can become a threat to public safety and have to be relocated and even killed. Good enough reason to never approach bears or feed them, I suppose.
For our safety, we should always make a reasonable viewing distance from any wild animal. Always stay at least 100 meters from any large wild animal including bears. And never approach closer for a better view or when taking photos.
When camping and hiking in bear country
Bears have an incredible sense of smell. To keep bears and people safe, visitors must properly store food, garbage and any item with an odor when camping and recreating in bear country.
Ensure your camp has good visibility. If animals approach you’ll see them more easily. Avoid camping or cooking near animal trails, berry patches or spawning streams. Also, make sure to wash your hands after handling fish. When camping in a bear country we need to keep our sleeping bags and tent completely free of odors to avoid attracting bears. Don’t sleep in the same clothes that you’re cooking because bears can smell cooking odors on your clothes and visit you in the tent while asleep. And you won’t be dreaming this time.
You shouldn’t leave your food unattended in the camp and make sure to wash and store all dishes and food after use. We should also store toiletries along with food and beverages in our vehicle or in a bear canister. Bears can smell what is in the cooler from a great distance away. So put coolers (unless bear-proof) and food in hard-sided vehicles or campers with doors locked and windows closed. Bears are very intelligent and can even break into cars when windows are cracked open. Keep your camp clean and store your trash in a bear-proof dumpster if available.
Hike during daylight hours and stay on the trail. Carry a bear pepper spray and keep it where you can easily reach at, not in your pack. Solo hiking and trail running in bear country is not a good idea. Make sure you hike in groups. Bears don’t like surprises nor eye contacts, which is why most of the bear attacks were as a result of surprising encounters. When hiking in the country make enough noise to avoid surprising a bear. Talk, sing or clap your hands when walking. If the bears know you are present they usually will leave.
When walking in the woods be more aware of the surroundings and watch for bear signs such as claw marks or diggings. Bears also like to rub their back on the trees and as a result, will leave hair of their fur or scratches of their claws.
The good news is that bears rarely attack people and might do that only when feeling threatened.
If you encounter a bear on a trail and it hasn’t noticed you yet, the best approach is to walk backward slowly and quietly leave the area or wait for the bear to leave. Never approach a bear. If the bear has noticed you but it’s not acting aggressively stay calm and do not run. Talk with a calm voice so the bear can recognize you as a human, not prey and in most of the cases will also leave. If you run the bear will hunt you down. Both bears can run pretty fast and outrun humans. They can also climb up a tree. So don’t think of that one either.
If you have already surprised a bear and it’s approaching you out of defense, you should appear calm and reassure the bear that you are not a threat by talking with a calm voice. When grizzly chargers you and come to close use your spray. If that dosen’t work, play dead.
Never play dead before grizzly bear makes a contact with you. If it does and you’re still alive (you haven’t died yet out of fear) you should play dead. So, lie on the ground on your stomach with your hands wrapped around your neck. Also, if you spread your legs it will be harder for the grizzly to flip you over, which would probably try to do. When the grizzly sees that you are not a threat it will lose interest and leave. Stay as calm and still as possible until you’re certain the bear is gone. Playing dead works only on grizzly bears so never play dead with a black bear.
If the black bear approaches, you should try to scare her off by acting aggressively and shouting. Make yourself look bigger by waving with your arms and yelling. If it comes to close use your bear spray. And finally, if that fails and attacks you fight back. Use rocks, sticks, branches, and anything that may help you survive the attack.
When and how to use a bear spray
We should do our best to avoid bear encounters. But, it’s a good idea to always carry one bear spray since it can be of great help when you meet up close with an aggressive bear. Bear sprays are capable of stopping aggressive behavior in bears.
Don’t rely on other personal defensive sprays since they won’t have the ingredients needed to stop a charging bear. Bear spray has an active chemical ingredient called capsaicin, found in chili peppers, that affects bear’s eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs. The spray is intended to drive the bear away from attacking and it won’t harm the bear. The idea is to restrain the bear for a while giving you a time to back away
Use it only when the bear is approaching aggressively and aim at her face. Place the spray somewhere where you can easily reach at. You won’t have the time to pull it out of a backpack when aggressive bear surprises you.
You shouldn’t spray it on clothes, tents or backpacks, it doesn’t work that way. That kind of smell on clothes can actually attract bears. So also make sure the wind is not blowing in the opposite direction and you spray yourself instead. Face against the wind. If you do it the right way the bear will run off. Make sure you don’t leave it in a vehicle too since it may explode. Always check the can if it’s working properly before you go camping or hiking in the woods.
Grizzly bears have no predators, other than humans. They are hunted primarily as game animals or when they become dangerous for public safety. People are the biggest threat to the bears. As our population increases and development moves deeper into the wilderness the risk of their habitat loss increases too.