Guide to Canada Bear Watching
Several species of bears are found in North America, the polar bear, the grizzly bear, the black bear, and the spirit bear. All of these species of bears can be seen in Canada. With its diverse and unspoiled wilderness, Canada is the top choice for bear watching. Some bears can be viewed year-round whereas others have a limited window of time they can be found. Below we will take eco-tourists such as you through the species, the regions you can go to watch them, and times of the year.
Bear species in Canada
Bears represent a remarkable duality of nature. These apex predators have been labeled as “Charismatic Megafauna”; in short, they have an appeal that extends far beyond their place in the ecosystem. Bears are powerful animals that can be fierce predators, other times they are adorable berry-eating animals personified by the likes of Winne the Pooh or Yogi. Held in a sacred admiration by the first peoples, bears don’t just exist in our popular culture but stories dating back well before the written word. In the case of cave drawings, our ancestors have been studying bears for at least 30 thousand years regardless of your connection to bears, everyone is fascinated by them.
Black bear (Ursus americanus)
The American black bear is the smallest and most common of the bear species found in Canada. There are an estimated 500,000 black bears in Canada.
Black bears can be found in a variety of color phases ranging from black to tan, sometimes causing casual hikers to think a grizzly crossed their path. Visually black bears are smaller, more rounded, more vocal than other bears, using grunts and hums to communicate. Black bears have curved claws for climbing trees.
Trees offer black bears forage, means of escape, and even a place to snooze! Still, you have the highest chance to see these bears in the wild since they are the largest population.
Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis)
Grizzlies are not standalone species but a subspecies of American brown bears. They get their name in part to the pale tips on its fur as the animal ages, giving a “grizzled” look. Standing 10 feet tall when upright, an adult grizzly can weigh 1200 pounds. A grizzly of any size is a substantial animal.
They are omnivores, eating fruit, berries, and whatever tubers are available. An iconic grizzly bear food source is salmon, high in fat and protein. The salmon run draws bears from all around to feast on the riverbanks of this seasonal delicacy between September and November.
An estimated 26,000 grizzly bears are living in Canada out of which 10,000 are mature. Sadly they are an endangered species.
Polar bear (Ursus maritimus)
As its Latin name suggests polar bears are frequently found near water. Polar bears are exceptional swimmers typically spending months on the sea ice hunting seals, their staple food source. Their coat can keep them insulated from the frigid arctic waters by encasing air inside the hairs. this works the same way that the down in your winter parka keeps you warm, by warming the air trapped between the inner and outer layers of your jacket.
Canada is home to 16,000 polar bears, two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population of 26,000.
Spirit bear (Ursus americanus kermodei)
Also known as the Kermode bear (named after its discoverer Douglas Kermode), this celestial-looking bear is a subspecies of the black bear. Found only on the central coast of British Columbia, these bears have a double recessive gene making them a cream color.
The most likely reason for the population of spirit bears in the rainforest of B.C. is that the pale coloration makes them more successful at catching salmon. It turns out that while in most places the spirit bears lack of camouflage would make it stand out, the salmon can’t see the white bears against the sunlight.
Sadly they are a very rare species and only 50-150 are roaming the forest. You need to be really lucky to be able to observe them in nature.
Where and when to go bear watching
Bears are incredible animals to behold. As apex predators, they exist in areas that are abundant with life. Bears are a success story of modern conservation and the positive impact that humans can have on the environment. We encourage you to explore the indescribable majesty that is the wilderness of Canada and to plan a bear-watching tour. A picture is worth a thousand words but an experience in the wild is priceless.
Most bears hibernate during the winter months making seeing them during this time just about impossible. If you want to book a bear-watching tour in Canada, the window of time is from May to October. Within this time frame, there are regional events that make watching even better. Below we will go into more detail about the location and times for viewing different species of bears.
Bear watchers can find highly adaptable black bears throughout Canada. However, to make the most of your bear watching holiday there are two regions to look into.
- For coastal black bears, the islands around Vancouver offer the chance to observe bears from the boat as they eat shellfish at low tide and salmon on the inlets.
- For mountain black bears, Manitoba provides excellent chances to view bears with unspoiled views.
Grizzlies are solitary animals most of the time, so seeing one is most often done over a food source. When the salmon run begins in August- October, grizzly bears and black bears flock to the rivers to fatten up for wintertime. Found mainly in the western half of the country look into the Cariboo Mountains.
Adams River is another hotspot for salmon-run British Columbia. Salmon spawning has a 4-year cycle which means every 4 years you can see a substantial amount compared to the other 3 years. Lucky for you, 2022 is the next year to watch out for. It is happening around mid-October. Sockeye salmons start their journey in the Pacific Ocean Fraser and Thompson river to arrive at their final destination, Adams river, and Shuswap Lake.
Found only in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, the Spirit bear can be seen with its “normal” colored relatives and grizzlies during the salmon runs in August-October. Bear watching for the spirit bear can be from May-October.
Polar Bears exist in an environment much different from the other bears of Canada. As such, they can be seen at slightly different times of the year. From July to September you can find polar bears in their summer hunting grounds on the shores of Hudson Bay.
From October to November, areas around Churchill Manitoba are world-famous for their polar bears. Over 90% of the polar bears in Canada occur in two of Canada’s northernmost territories: Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.
The Great Bear Rainforest
If you spend any length of time looking into Canadian bear watching you have seen references to British Columbia‘s Great Bear Rainforest. This old-growth forest encompasses 6.4 million hectares about the size of Ireland.
This is the only area where the Spirit Bear is found. Alongside these allusive bears are their dark phase relatives and grizzly bears, all of which can be seen feasting on salmon during the runs from August to October. Not only will there be bears to view but a variety of marine life like humpback whales and orca can be seen from shore or boat.
Quebec is the most populous province in Canada and as such has less wildlife per acre than others. However, for the vacationer who has come to Canada for other adventures, Québec offers wildlife viewing for the day-tripper. While only black bears are found in this region, Laurentides Reserve offers a great opportunity to see wildlife including black bears.
Tips for bear safety
While bear attacks are very rare, they are still a concern for anyone enjoying the bear country. While a more comprehensive bear safety can be found at the NPS website a few tips to remember are as followed:
- Hike with a guide and in a group when possible. A large number of people will keep curious bears away. A guide is even better since they are familiar with the area and potentially the resident animals.
- Let the bear know you are a human. Stand upright and slowly raise and lower your arms, this will make you appear larger and like less of a “normal” animal.
- Leave the area. Walk don’t run, bears like any predator will chase a fleeing animal. Walking slowly and sideways keeps you from tripping and an eye on the bear.
- Give females with cubs space. Most bear attacks come from females protecting their cubs from a perceived threat.
More eco-friendly activities in Canada
Emese Maczko is a travel blogger behind Eco Lodges Anywhere. Having explored several destinations around Europe, the US, Indonesia, and Australia, and resided in Germany, the United Kingdom, and Luxembourg, Emese possesses a keen understanding of diverse cultures and an appreciation for the beauty of each destination she visits. She advocates for sustainable travel and ecotourism.