Three species of bears are present in western Canada, but only two—black bears and grizzlies—are widespread and abundant. The two can be differentiated by size and shape. Grizzlies are larger than black bears and have a flatter, dish-shaped face and a distinctive hump of muscle behind the neck. Color is not a reliable way to tell them apart: Black bears are not always black. They can be brown or cinnamon, causing them to be confused with the brown grizzly.
If you spot a bear feeding beside the road, chances are it’s a black bear. These mammals are widespread throughout all forested areas of western Canada, with an estimated population of 150,000 throughout the region. Their weight varies considerably, but males average 150 kilograms (330 pounds) and females 100 kilograms (220 pounds). Their diet is omnivorous, consisting primarily of grasses and berries, but supplemented by small mammals. They are not true hibernators, but in winter they can sleep for up to a month at a time before changing position.
Grizzlies (called brown bears along the British Columbia coast), second largest of eight recognized species of bears (only polar bears are larger), have disappeared from most of North America but are widespread throughout western Canada, numbering around 12,000. Grizzlies are only occasionally seen by casual observers; most sightings occur in alpine and subalpine zones, although sightings at lower elevations are not unusual, especially when snow falls early or late.
During fall along the British Columbia coast, salmon runs draw bears to local river systems, almost guaranteeing sightings at a few accessible spots. The bears’ color ranges from light brown to almost black, with dark tan being the most common. On average, males weigh 200–350 kilograms (440–770 pounds), with those along the coast often weighing a lot more. Apart from the salmon feasting, grizzlies eat small and medium-size mammals and berries in fall. Like black bears, they sleep through most of the winter.
Evolved from the grizzly bear 250,000–400,000 years ago, polar bears weigh up to 600 kilograms (1,300 pounds) and measure 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) from head to tail. Their most distinctive feature is a pure white coat, but they also have long bodies with large necks. The bears’ scientific name, Ursus maritimus (maritime bear), aptly refers to their habitat, which is the permanent pack ice of the Arctic Ocean east to Hudson Bay. Polar bears are at home in the sea and have been known to swim hundreds of kilometers.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition