Grizzlies – Human behaviour to bear in mind

by Howard Pattinson

There is something magical in observing bears in the wild, but the question is how should we behave in bear country? Ideally, we want to be able to enjoy the wilderness and allow the bears to thrive in their habitat. If you come across a coastal grizzly bear, be aware that its evolution will have an affect on how it reacts to you.

Grizzly bears evolved on the open steppes of the northern plains where hiding was not an option so their defence is usually to go on the offensive. A female grizzly will charge you to chase you away from her cubs or food source. Most of the time, it’s only a bluff charge and she will turn away once she thinks you are no longer a threat. Do not shout or wave your arms the way you would if you had an interaction with a coastal black bear. Coastal black bears evolved in forested areas so they tend to run, climb a tree or hide. Most coastal black bears are black with little white bow ties. Coastal grizzly bears are brown, blond, dark brown or black and they’re bigger, with a large hump of muscle between the shoulders.

A grizzly bear may walk towards you with a grizzly swagger to assert dominance or simply because it is curious. If possible, back up. If you are in a boat, move your vessel away. Be aware that your lunch can be just as enticing to a bear as it is to you. I have opened a sockeye sandwich about a mile from a grizzly bear and with its nose turned into the wind, it immediately started walking towards us, at which point we started the boat motor, put the food back in the cooler and quickly got out of there. You also have to be careful to keep garbage aboard the boat. Bears foraging along the beach at low tide for natural seafood will come across human garbage and learn to like it; they’ll then seek out other sources of human food from logging camps and summer homes. Human food-conditioned bears are put down by the BC Conservation Service. Black bears conditioned to human food are also attracted to bird feeders in people’s yards; you might ask yourself if it is really necessary to feed birds in the summer when there is a lot of wild food available.

On the move

Grizzly bears hibernate high in the mountains above the tree line. As the sun strengthens and the snow begins to melt, a female grizzly bear breaks through the protective layer of snow to greet the spring. She is not alone this year; three small cubs peek out into a bright strange world. Born in the dark den to a sleeping mother, these cubs – the size of a pound of butter – begin to nurse on their mother’s rich milk, gaining weight and growing bigger every day. Emergence from the den signals the beginning of the cub’s lessons in survival. Female grizzly bears have many lessons to teach their young and the mother will keep them close for three winters before they are ready to go off on their own.

Initially, the young family stays close to the winter den until the cubs learn to scramble over logs, along rocky, steep slopes and through the dense underbrush. Slowly, the mother leads her cubs down to the low tide beaches of Knight Inlet. On these rocky beaches, she finds protein that will provide the calories required to replace the almost 40 percent loss of body weight that occurred over the winter. She will teach her young to roll rocks to find tasty blennies, eels, crabs and isopods that have been stranded as the tide recedes. By the middle of summer, the cubs will be rolling their own rocks, which are about half their size, just like mom does.

Spring is not a safe time for young grizzly bears as male grizzlies are roaming the beaches and estuaries in search of food and a mate. Males will kill the cubs to force the females back into heat. This mom and cubs stay away from the highly productive estuaries and remain hidden near an old avalanche chute where she gets by on skunk cabbage and low tide beach seafood. She will only move into the estuary when she is certain the males have finished mating and moved into the high country to gorge on alpine berries. As the salmon berries ripen in mid June, she spends more time in the berry patches. On a lucky day, when a sharp eyed bald eagle snatches an early salmon out of the creek and rips at the wriggling fish, mother’s nose goes up and she trots along the beach. Coming suddenly over a rock bluff, she startles the eagle into flight. This grizzly family enjoys its first salmon meal of the season.

People have lived with bears on the BC coast for thousands of years. They are an important part of our wilderness and a symbol of strength, power and intelligence. When we remember a few simple rules, we may not only enjoy bears in the wild, but we can also help them stay wild.

Howard Pattinson is the owner of Tide Rip Grizzly Tours in Telegraph Cove, BC. As a grizzly tour guide, he is very familiar with bear behaviour in the wild.

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