Recreating Safely in Natural Bear Habitats
British Columbia’s backcountry offers several incredible attributes, from stunning landscapes and unspoiled alpine views to solitude and integration with nature. Another awe-inspiring offering provided by the backcountry is the extensive wildlife that you may encounter along the way; perhaps viewing wildlife – safely and responsibly – is even the reason you choose to visit the backcountry.
BC is home to both black (in coastal areas the Kermode bear, a rare, white-coated black bear) and grizzly bears with the province’s varied landscape providing the ideal habitat for both species. While black bears tend to prefer extensively wooded areas, lowlands and wetlands, grizzlies tend to occupy a greater range of habitats including tundra plains, prairie and grasslands, and of course, the thick temperate rainforests of coastal BC. The two species can however – and do – overlap habitats.
As humans recreating in natural bear habitats, it’s our responsibility to be mindful of bear habits and activity, taking every precaution in order to prevent and reduce human-bear conflict. Most bear encounters occur in the warmer months of the year (March through November) when the number of outdoor recreationalists is higher, leading to an increased chance of an encounter.
The late summer and autumn is a key time for bear activity in the backcountry: bears enter a state of hyperphagia – an extreme appetite which increases their feeding activity – driven by their biological need to fatten up prior to hibernation. Though the onset and duration of this hyperphagia state differs based on the regional norms of food availability which can vary. During hyperphagia, bears can feed upwards of 20 hours each day to prepare for a winter of hibernation. As a result of this, they can become temperamental and defensive if they perceive a threat to a potential meal source.
Before embarking on any adventure into the wilderness – and into bear habitat – prepare yourself by learning about bears, their behaviours, and how to avoid conflicts and stay safe while recreating in BC. (Consider taking WildSafeBC’s Bear Safety When Recreating course to learn more.)
While you’re out in the backcountry, be alert and watch for bears or bear activity including their tracks and scat, strange smells or disturbed vegetation nearby. Alert potential bears to your presence by making noise: singing, talking calmly and loudly, or clapping, especially near streams and areas of low visibility. Hike and bike in groups and don’t let children wander; larger groups of 4 or more are less likely to have a negative encounter with a bear. Always keep pets on-leash, as dogs can provoke defensive bear behaviour. And of course, always be prepared with bear spray and know how to use it effectively.
When camping outdoors, store bear attractants – such as food (both human and pet), garbage, recyclables, toiletries, and other smelly items – in a bear-safe manner, see what WildSafeBC advises about this. Utilize bear-proof food storage lockers when provided or bring your own bear-proof containers and hang food from a rope system or tree branch in an area inaccessible to bears (at least four metres off the ground and three metres from the nearest tree.)
It’s crucial for us to respect the fact that the backcountry is home to bears and as visitors in their areas, we must do our part to conserve bears and their natural environment. To learn more on
bear safety and what to do if you encounter a bear or if a bear approaches or charges you, please visit the following resources:
Commercial Bear Viewing Association