Backyard Grizzly Bears

Seeing a grizzly bear is a right of passage for any true Canadian, some may say. As a wildlife enthusiast/aspiring naturalist and having found myself back in Canada during the pandemic, seeing a Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos) was definitely top on the list of must attempt to see wildlife.

Thankfully I’m residing in Southwest British Columbia where they are seen during spring when the elevations people reside no longer has snow blanketing the ground, while higher elevations still do. This provides a small timeframe to potentially find and observe this bear species.

According to the Coast to Cascades (C2C) Grizzly Bear Initiative, the area I reside in contains a threatened population of grizzlies, but very close to an IUCN recognized “Critically Endangered” population. For more context, the western population was given special concern status federally in May 2012 (COSEWIC 2012).

When a pair of grizzly bears (GB) was first discovered roaming around about a 15 minute walk from where I sleep it was almost too good to be true! For these bear visits to then become a regular evening ritual, I was spoiled! I was lucky enough to both photograph them live, and with a wildlife camera over the following weeks before they departed (hopefully until next year). To view these bears regularly was an incredible opportunity, one that may not exist in the future unless issues are addressed.

A wildlife camera shot of the pair of grizzlies in the early afternoon/evening.

With having grizzlies show up in our “backyard” essentially stimulated many behavioural questions. Instinctively as a naturalist I’m interested in pretty much anything that’s, well, natural! So I’ve explored some of these questions, and here’s my best shot with some quick and dirty answers.

The Questions: 

  1. Is the pair we are seeing siblings? Do siblings stay together, if so, for how long? 
  2. Is grass the only food they have right now? 
  3. How many bears are estimated to be in my area? 
  4. How big is a grizzly’s territory?

The Answers:

1. I was lucky to view a pair over multiple times for about two weeks. Wild Safe BC states females are slightly smaller, and the color variation in these two we saw, one much darker than the other shows the range in coat color. Mama bears will stay with cubs for at least two years, eventually chasing them off after three years old. So perhaps we were seeing a mama and youngster. . . . Or perhaps since mating also takes place in the spring, perhaps we saw a potential pair, but females may have multiple mates. Hmmmm, so without knowing these bears intimately and perhaps some DNA analysis, the relationship between these bears remains currently unknown.

2. Approximately 70% of a GB diet is plant based, a value higher than I expected! So while it’s still spring, and earlier plant bloomers have come and gone it makes sense that grass is being consumed as it’s flourishing and plentiful! Additional food sources include other springtime plants such as “sedges, horsetails (Equisetum arvense), and cow parsnips (Vaccinium spp.)” are consumed until the berries are ready (Wild Safe BC, McLellan and Hovey 1994). Additionally, ungulates and hydysarum roots, which are in the legume/pea/bean family are also consumed (McLellan and Hovey 1994). As the year progresses and season change, these bears will adapt, migrate to different elevations in order to feed, and undergo hyperphagia when nearing hibernation. All of these activities in about a seven month period (COSEWIC 2012). Wowza! 

3. According to the Annual Report in 2005/2006 of BC Southern Coast Range GBs are in their core habit early in the year, and eventually disperse to higher elevations in the later spring months and into summer. Obviously I’m viewing a small subset of the whole population, but still their numbers were surprisingly low. I, and the fellow humans nearby share an area with 59 bears, but I’m very close to a population of only 24 bears. Oooof. That seems small. 

4. According to Wild Safe BC a home range of a grizzly bear can span “25 to 700 square kilometers.” COSEWIC’s 2012 assessment states that females average 700km^2, versus a male will range for 1,800 km^2. Quite the range of ranges! As is the case with many organisms, ranges vary based on habitat quality often reflecting an inverse relationship. 

What a beauty! Just munching on grass, with no idea of our presence, which is exactly how I like to view wildlife.

I could ask and research many more questions, but I just wanted to pause and research a few. But I couldn’t ignore reading and being more informed about the issues affecting these bears.  The greatest issues are habitat fragmentation, and contact/conflict with us humans. C2C has a fantastic article outlining these issues, solutions that work, and proposed solutions. Altering our human behavior sometimes only slightly can meaningfully help bears behave like bears so their populations can remain intact, connect with others, and improve overall.

Grizzlies need our help now and for a while. I only touched on a few issues they face not even mentioning how climate change will affect them. But there are fantastic people fighting for them, and the cheapest and easiest thing to do is to be educated and informed.

As a last tidbit I found while researching these beautiful bears I came across a persistent myth I’ve heard multiple times. “Grizzlies have poor eyesight.” This is incorrect. Grizzly’s eyesight as well as hearing is comparable to humans (Wild Safe BC). They will go on their back legs to gain a better scent trail as they have a superior sense of smell.

Such a lovely experience viewing these bears, I hope I see them again in the future. Good luck!

For perhaps a future post, a group of four of us viewed this mama bear and two cubs on a recent backpacking trip:

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