The Bears are Awakening! How Are You Handling It?

by Ann

Grizzly suspecting intruders

Grizzly up on hind legs suspecting intruders

Even though we have lots of snow this year, it’s time to remind you to brush up on your bear knowledge and habits.   The bears will soon be awake from their long winter hibernation, and the folks who have been spending time watching known bear dens, and counting them as they come out into the warmth and light, will be busy.

Bears, particularly grizzlies, are a symbol of Alberta’s vast wilderness.  Many people love to recount their bear encounter stories … to anyone who will listen.  And there are lots of us who would rather listen than be the subject of the encounter.  The closest I ever came to a great big grizzly was a sleepy, sedated animal that was being relocated to a more remote area of the province.

Bears in Alberta

You will find two species of bears in Alberta – the black bear and the grizzly.  The most obvious difference between the two is the grizzly’s hump on its back.  The other obvious difference is the length of the claws – the grizzly’s being much longer at 7.5-10 cm (about 3-4 inches) than the black bear’s at 2.5 cm (1 inch).  The black bear’s colour, by the way, can vary anywhere from light brown through to black.

Black bear in the bush

Black bear in the bush

Grizzlies are rarer than black bears in Alberta, partly because they have fewer cubs, and they have them less frequently.  Black bears have 2 or 3 (occasionally 4) cubs at a time, every 2 years, whereas the grizzly female gives birth to only 1 or 2 (occasionally 3) cubs every 3 or 4 years.

Grizzly in berries

Grizzly checking out its food source

According to the Alberta Wilderness Association, there were estimated to be less than 700 bears in Alberta in 2010, down from 1,000 in 2002.  So grizzly bears were put on an endangered list and steps were taken to protect the bears’ habitat.
Increasingly the bears’ territory has been coming under pressure from what is called “human use of access” – that is the growing use of recreational off-road, and industrial vehicles such as oil exploration and logging.  All of this is destroying grizzly territory and either driving the bears away or, in some cases, killing them through motor vehicle or train accidents.  Every year there are reports of bear deaths by vehicles on the highway, or trains on the tracks.

You would have to be lucky to see a grizzly but, depending upon where you are travelling in Alberta, it is more common to see black bears – sometimes grazing berries along the side of  the road, or even crossing in front of your vehicle.

Black bear in ther grass

Black bear relaxing in the grass

Bear habits

Bears are naturally reticent animals, and will only respond to humans if they perceive a threat to their cache of food or to their young.  You’ve heard that if food becomes scarce and berries are in short supply, bears will investigate all food supplies – including household garbage.  That’s when they start to become habituated to humans and turn into what are called “nuisance bears”, which then means that they will be transported off to a wilderness area.

Occasionally, one will find its way back to town and, eventually, if it does not leave the area, or keeps returning, and after trying all kinds of deterrents, it could be destroyed.  This is a tragedy for the bear population, so make sure you practice bear avoidance procedures at all times.  Following these practices not only keeps you safe, but it keeps the bears safe, too.

Bear safety

At home

There are a several ways to discourage bears from your property if you live in bear territory.  The primary way is to bear-proof your garbage, secure your food and leftovers in bear-proof containers – or keep it all in the in the freezer until collection day.

Grizzly looking forward

Grizzly checking out photographer

Is your home in bear country?  Then don’t have bird feeders, where seed can fall and attract bears – they can smell it.  Likewise avoid certain blossoming berry trees because of the tempting berries that they produce.  You don’t really want to look out one day and see a family of bears munching them for lunch.

In many communities, these trees and bushes are forbidden anyway.  In a small town in the Rockies, bears regularly used to come and eat all the apples off the trees of some citizens.  This caused quite a furor, because the citizens considered the bears as their ‘own’, and the authorities claimed that the feeding wild animals were a danger, and removed them out to a wilderness.


Black bear walking past

Black bear on a mission

When you are out hiking, you will occasionally see a bear up ahead or across a stream, but it will leave if it knows you are there, or when it hears you coming – that’s why hikers shout and sing to warn the bears.

You’ll want to recognize if there’s a bear close by, so watch out for new tracks and trails, fresh scat, ant hills that have been torn open, claw marks on trees, diggings and buried carcases.   If you see any or all of these signs, it’s best to move away from that area and let the bear get on with its search for food.

When you are hiking, walk should-to-shoulder in a group of 4 – 6 and sing and shout.  Make plenty of noise to let any bears in the area know that you are there – they do not want to meet you, and the only time they would normally attack is if they see you as a threat – to their food cache, or to their offspring.  Authorities still say that you should walk in groups of 6, but there have been no reports of bear attacks on such groups, so now they have approved smaller groups of 4.

Looking at photos is as close as I would like to come to a bear, but those who understand bear lore, and share the same home territory, know how to be bear-aware, and how to conduct themselves when in bear country.  If you would like to learn more about bears and any other wildlife, click here to go to Wildsmart, a community conservation and education organization whose mission is to reduce negative human-wildlife interactions.

Bear videos

I have included a couple of videos, just because I like them.  The first one by Sylvia Dolson, ‘Bears are not that unlike us’ is posted on and contains some beautiful photos

Bears are not that unlike us

Bears are made of, and enjoy all the same things we do.

Bears are not unlike us

Also, click on this link, which will lead you to an article and a CBC documentary about Jeff Turner’s search for grizzlies in his home in Paradise Valley, BC.  Even though this is shot in British Columbia, our next door province, I want to share it with you – there is some stunning photography of bears and other wildlife.  The video is about 45 minutes long, but it’s so worth taking the time to sit quietly and enjoy it, you’ll see some spectacular shots … watch for the bear interactions, and the close-ups of a dragonfly in flight.


Let me know what you think of these videos and the bear photos, for which I thank Kirsten Phillips.

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