On bears: B.C.’s unique landscape highlights diversity of bear species

Home / Latest News / On bears: B.C.’s unique landscape highlights diversity of bear species

Special thanks to Publisher, Kathy O’Reilly. Originally printed Friday, September 6, 2019 in The North Island Eagle.

In our last article we covered British Columbia’s (B.C.) camels during the days of the gold rush, including one situation in which a hunter accidentally shot a camel thinking it was a grizzly bear! Silly old bear, I mean hunter. At the end of the article, I hinted at an in-depth piece on B.C.’s grizzly bears, before I get there, however, I thought I would take a step back and briefly touch on the province’s bears more broadly. I’m hoping this will help build a deeper understanding of how rich and special our precious province is. So, sit back, grab that cup of tea, and feel the edges of the newspaper your holding (or the screen if you’re reading this digitally), I think this article might surprise you a bit.

When you a see a bear in the wild, a stream of overwhelming emotions hit you in an instant; excitement, curiosity, and amazement are all competing for the part of your human brain that is both in awe and yet, at the same time, also cautious of the majestic wild animal standing before you (preferably at a distance).

B.C. is like no other place on earth. Our biodiversity is immense and world renowned. The non-human inhabitants of this great province span so many terrestrial and oceanic life forms they’re almost too numerous to list. Even single species can have such far reaching genetic variations, scientists, biologists, and academics often spend their entire careers on a single sub-species (although what constitutes a sub-species is continually up for debate). Take B.C. black bears for example (ursus americanus for our biology readers).

A black bear is a medium sized bear that ranges across North America. While the coastal black bear (ursus americanus altifrontalis) inhabits most of the human populated mainland regions of B.C., there are also two large islands in the province that have their own black bear sub-species, Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. Vancouver Island has a black bear sub-species that is smaller than mainland bears and has smaller teeth (ursus americanus vancouveri). Haida Gwaii, our northern island formerly called the Queen Charlottes, boasts a species of black bear that has a huge head comparative to other black bears, as well as, unusually large molars (ursus americanus carlottae). This whole sub-species issue gets even more complex when we consider the colour of a black bear’s fur. As the name suggests, a black bear is a bear that is black in colour. However, that’s not always the case!

Along the province’s West Coast, the Kermode bear (also known as spirit bear or ursus americanus kermodei), are black bears with a double recessive gene that gives them white fur, instead of black. They are not albinos, as many people have mistaken them for. They are white black bears. Some academics have argued that the white fur has led to an advantage in a bear’s ability to fish in streams. But it doesn’t end there.

In the far northern reaches of BC, the allusive Glacier bear (ursus americanus emmonsii) can also be seen. The glacier bear, also known as a “blue bear” is a black bear with blueish, slivery-grey tipped fur. The black undercoat topped with blue and slivery tipped fur gives the bear an eerie ghost like appearance when it stands against rocky, grey, mountain backdrops. Its fur is almost a natural mountain camouflage. For generations, many hunters have refused to kill the “bear that disappears”, believing it brings back luck.

Finally, there is the black bear called a Cinnamon bear (ursus americanus cinnamomum). Cinnamon bears probably do like cinnamon, especially if it’s in a sugary apple crisp. But, no, they didn’t get their name from eating apple pie attractants left out on window sills to cool by not so intelligent humans. They got their name from the brown and sometimes blonde/redish-brown colour of their fur.

But don’t confuse a cinnamon bear with a brown bear! A brown bear is a Grizzly bear and a grizzly bear is not a species of black bear. Confused? Join the club, there have been many grizzly bears unlawfully shot by hunters because somebody thought they were an un-protected cinnamon bear. But there are ways to tell the difference.

First, the B.C. grizzly bear is larger in size than a black bear. Second, it has massive claws (although if you’re looking that close at its claws you’ve probably done something wrong). Third, and most important, a grizzly bear has a distinct hump between its shoulders. A black bear has no shoulder hump. The grizzly bear also has smaller ears than a black bear.

Interestingly, although the B.C. grizzly bear is classified as a carnivore, it shares a similar diet as a black bear and is, like a black bear, usually omnivorous – eating both prey animals, plants, and carrion. The point is, the bear facts are this, just because you see a brown bear doesn’t mean you’re seeing a brown bear (insert a good old fashion head scratch here). There is evidence that indigenous cultures have long recognized the difference between grizzly bears and black bears, often through oral stories, myths, and legends.

Despite the many differences between B.C. bear species and sub-species, all B.C. bears share one thing in common, the failures of humans. Including habitat loss due to clear-cut logging practices, the decline of den sites as a result of the removal of old growth forests, continued rail mortalities and deaths from vehicle collisions, and many other industrial and social factors (such as conflicts with humans and urban/industrial expansion), the bear could use our human help to do less harm and leave a little bit more of nature to, well, nature.

So, dear reader, if you’ve made it this far in the article you are to be congratulated. In my view, it takes each and every one of us to stop and learn about the bear. In today’s face paced world of fleeting media and barrage of Trumpian news, gabbing a paper and reading through 1,000 words is no easy task. For all bears, thank you for slowing down and taking the time to consider this magnificent creature and its plight.

Bryce Casavant is a former B.C. Conservation Officer. He is a Doctoral Candidate at Royal Roads University. Bryce recently received fellowship with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for his work, In Search of a Wild Peace.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment

Photo by Pete Nuij on UnsplashPhoto by Paxson Woelber on Unsplash