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Bear Facts

If you hike a lot in the Yukon, the chances are you will eventually come across a bear. It can be an exhilarating experience watching a bear from a safe distance. But what if you surprise a bear or crest a hill and see one eating berries on the other side? Knowing a little bit about bear behaviour will keep you safer in the backcountry and help make those bear encounters great memories.

Grizzly bear or Black bear?

Gizzly Bear
Black Bear
black bear
Colour Brown, blonde; some grizzled (silver) tips Black, brown, or even white (kermode bear)
Weight 650-800 lbs 200-400 lbs
  • The highest point on a grizzly is usually its
  • shoulder hump.
  • Dished face appearance.
  • Usually walks with head low.
  • Long front claws.
  • The highest point on a black bear is well behind its shoulders.
  • Straight-lined face from snout to top of head.
  • Short front claws.

  • Where can bears be found throughout the year?

    Bears usually leave their winter den in April or May, depending on the weather that year. After leaving their den, the bears may either spend their time at low elevations near swamps, rivers or lakes or at high elevations near avalanche chutes and slide clearings. After breeding in May-June, bears will spread throughout all elevations. Black bears tend to stay below the treeline, but grizzlies can be found in the alpine. In the summer, bears can be found in open areas such as meadows, burn sites and logging slashes where they can find new growth such as berries and grasses as well as insects and small mammals. In the fall, if salmon can be found in the rivers, then the bears will search them out. If not, then they tend to stick to their summer habitats and move to higher elevations until denning again for the winter.

    Are there bears during the winter?

    It is not entirely necessary for a bear to hibernate during the winter. In fact, bears do not truly hiberate - they enter a dormant phase and lower their body temperature by a few degrees, but can have periods of wakefulness. In colder climates like the Yukon, bears usually 'hibernate' due to a lack of food sources and to give birth. However, unlike a true hibernating mammal, bears can wake up and leave their den during the winter. If you were to collapse a den by walking over it, there would be a good chance the bear would come out to see what woke it up. Nevertheless, seeing a bear during the winter in the Yukon would be a rare sight indeed.

    How do I prevent surprising a bear?

    Although it is good to know what to do when you encounter a bear, its best to avoid a bear encounter altogther. The worst way to meet a bear on the trail is to surprise it. The bear has only a split second to decide whether to fight or flight. To prevent surprising a bear, you have to make your presence known. The best way to do this is to give a quick shout every now and then, like "Noooo bear!" or "Heyyyyy-O!". If you shout loud enough, you won't have to shout as often. Its best to give an extra shout when you crest a ridge or are near a noisy stream. If you find this too embarrassing, then you can try shouting something that sounds like normal conversation like "Oh really!". But who's to judge, right?

    Some people like to bring bear bells or whistle while they walk. Although they may be less embarrassing to do while on the trail, both sounds are not very loud and you could still end up surprising a bear. In fact, if the bear doesn't associate the sound with a human, it may even be curious and come check the sound out. For example, whistling might sound like the whistle of an arctic ground squirrel, food for a bear.

    What types of bear deterrent are there?

    There are three common types of bear deterrent: bear bangers, bear spray, and guns.

    Bear bangers are used by loading a flare and/or banger and shooting it off. The flare creates a light show and the banger creates a large bang. Both are supposed to frighten the bear enough that it runs away. That's the key - it runs away. An improperly used bear banger could send the bear running straight at you. A good percentage of the time, the bear seems unnerved, as if it didn't even here the bang.

    Bear spray is a very effective deterrent against bears when used properly. It contains capsaicin (a hot pepper derivate) and a propellent that sprays a mist of repellent between you and the bear. Most canisters shoot for approximately 10 seconds at a distance of about 5 meters or more. The bear spray irritates the mucus membranes and eyes of the bear and may make it sneeze, cough, tear, and feel some pain. In Canada, the maximum percentage of capsaicin is 1%, which is not hot enough to burn the bear's mouth, otherwise leading it to eventual starvation. If a charging bear is sprayed, it may asphyxiate the bear (take its breath away) and leave it in a state that may allow you to leave the area. The down side to bear spray is when there is a wind - make sure not to spray against the wind or you may be spraying yourself.

    Guns, when used as a deterrent, are like heavy, expensive bear bangers. The difference being that a gun can be used as protection as well. A gun, when used properly, is almost 100% effective. However, there are many factors which make relying on a gun a loss less effective. For one, you must be properly trained on how to use the gun. Not only that, but also how to use the gun under high-stress situations. You must be able to decide within a fraction of a second whether or not the bear intends to maul you or just make a bluff charge. Shooting a bear that does not intend to attack you is an absolute shame. Shooting a bear that does intend to attack you will save your life. Knowing the difference takes a lot of experience with bear behaviour. Guns are heavy, a Winchester Defender weighs 7 lbs unloaded. A gun can jam when you need it most, leaving you with no line of defence. It is illegal to bring a gun into most parks.

    What do I do if I see a bear?

    Stay calm. That probably didn't sink in, so I'll say it again - stay calm. The worst thing you could do is to panic and run away, and it does happen. Before you go for a hike, tell yourself that the first thing you will do when you see a bear is to stay calm, then you'll have a much better chance of consciously remembering. Then, read the bear's behaviour. If its salivating, chomping, and its hair is standing up, then its probably aggrevated and wants you to leave. If it looks at you once and then continues lazily eating grass, its probably not overly concerned that you're around. Take your bear spray out, break eye contact with the bear, talk calmly at it, and slowly back away. If the bear is near the trail and in your way, you will have to give it a wide berth if you decide to continue hiking forward.

    Where can I get more information on bears?

    A great resource for information on bears is from B.C. author James Gary Shelton. His books, such as Bear Encounter Survival Guide, offer fantastic, detailed information on bear behaviour and encounters. They are published by Pallister Publishing and can normally be found in bookstores in B.C. and the Yukon, as well as on the internet.