One of the inspiring parts of exploring wild places is discovering an entire world that exists apart from (even if deeply influenced by) the day to day universe that makes up our busy urban lives. Just as we spend our time worrying about jobs, taxes and politics, the inhabitants of the wilderness around us spend their days focussed on food, shelter and staving off competition. In this series of blog posts we’ve been shedding some light on the creatures that make their homes in the wild areas around Toronto! So far we’ve written about Ontario’s wild cats, the world’s biggest deer (aka moose) and Canada’s national animal, the Beaver. Today, in our last Ontario wildlife post, we’ll be writing about Ontario’s most notorious mammal, the black bear.
The black bear is an adaptable species which can be found in a variety of climates across North America and whose habitat, size and habits vary from location to location. The total North American black bear population is estimated at 600,000, ~100,000 of which can be found in Ontario. The black bear is the smallest of the three Canadian bear species, dwarfed by its larger cousins the grizzly bear and the polar bear.
If you are travelling in Ontario, unless you are all the way up near Hudson Bay, the only bear you will encounter is the black bear. Despite their name, black bears are not always black and their fur can range from black to grey to brown (and even to white in the rare case of an Albino black bear.) A fully grown adult typically measures 1 - 2.5m long and weighs anywhere from 40 to 250kg. Despite their heavy-set looking frames, bears are extremely fast and nimble running up to 50 kilometres per hour and easily scaling trees.
Habitat & Food
Black bears typically live in heavily forested areas where they survive on a primarily, but not solely, plant based diet. In addition to leaves, berries, flowers and roots, black bears also eat a variety of insects, fish, small mammals, and even the occasional baby deer or moose. With their super-powered sense of smell, bears will seek out human food and garbage where available. In areas where humans and bears dwell in close proximity, bears can become increasingly dependent on human waste and dangerously habituated to human presence. As an apex predator, the only species that hunts adult bears are us humans.
Solitary animals, black bears can live as long as 35 years in the wild, spending from 2 - 7 months each year hibernating in their winter dens. During hibernation black bears enter a torpor where their heart rates and breathing slow down dramatically and they refrain from eating, drinking, urinating or defecating for the entire period. If disturbed, or if there are a series of sufficiently mild winter days, a black bear may emerge, temporarily from its hibernation, wandering in a semi-drugged state, before returning to the den.
When they aren’t hibernating, bears are typically active during the daytime, from dawn to dusk. In areas where humans and bears live in close proximity, bears may alter their behaviour, becoming more nocturnal in order to avoid human encounters.
Although bears are shy and tend to avoid contact with humans - if they have not become habituated - human-bear encounters are not uncommon, especially when humans recreate - hiking, canoeing and camping - in bear country. Nevertheless, bear attacks are extremely rare, and there are only 12 recorded cases of people being killed by black bears in Ontario in the past 140 years.
As we explained in a previous post, there is no exact science about what to do if you run into any wild animal. That being said there are some prominent rules of thumb for how to act when you encounter a black bear:
Stand your ground, speak slowly and firmly, and back away while keeping the bear in sight
If you have bear spray, release the lock and be prepared to use it (best to read bear spray instructions prior to starting your excursion)
In the extremely unlikely event that you are actually attacked by a black bear, DO NOT play dead. Fight back in any way you can, using sticks or rocks to go for the bear’s eyes and snout.
Before travelling overnight in bear country make sure you have reviewed basic tactics to prevent human-bear conflicts. Prepare a system for storing all food, garbage, and smelly items in sealed bags, far away from your tent, preferably, downwind and in a bear-locker or hanging bag.
More tips on bear-safe behaviour in Ontario.