Black bears are the most common bear species in North America and in the Okanagan. Despite their name, black bears are often not black! They come in various shades of black, dark and light brown, and in some cases along BC's North-West coast, even white! British Columbia has the highest population of black bears in the world (about 120 to 150 thousand individuals!), so you are very likely to come across one at some point when you are out enjoying nature.
But if Black Bears are sometimes brown, how can you tell them apart from Grizzly bears? Black Bears tend to be smaller than Grizzlies, but the sizes of the two species can have some overlap. Instead of looking at colour and size, it is best to look at a combination of features:
Grizzlies (top picture) have a hump between their shoulders while black bears (bottom picture) do not
Black bears have shorter claws
Black bears have a straight face profile, while a Grizzly's is more dished
Black bear ears are larger and upright while Grizzly's are round and short
Habitat can also be a useful hint in telling the two species apart: while black bears prefer forested habitats, grizzlies are more likely to be found in open, higher elevation habitats.
Black bears are omnivores and about 80% of their food comes from plants. They have a fantastic sense of smell which allows them to track down food over long distances. Berries are a very important food source, but black bears are opportunistic eaters and will take advantage of any easy meal, including carrion and garbage. When hungry bears wake up in the spring-time, they need to work all summer and autumn to build up their fat reserves for the winter. Their search often brings them to garbage, compost, bird-feeders, pet food, and any other edibles left out by humans. These foods are quick and easy for the bear to find, but it brings them into close contact with humans. Over time, these bears start to lose their natural fear of humans as they start to associate us with food. Because of this, hundreds of "problem" black bears are destroyed every year in BC due to safety concerns.
To protect Black Bears in your area, be bear smart and take these steps:
Never purposefully feed bears! Keep wild animals wild
Bring in bird feeders and pet food at night from spring through autumn
Use wildlife-proof garbage, recycling, and compost bins, or keep them inside until collection day, if possible
Clean up fallen fruit from your trees
Clean your barbecue after every use
Even though black bears are cute, it is important to remember that these are wild animals that can be dangerous. Keep bear safety in mind when out in nature - and sometimes even just in your neighbourhood! Bear attacks are very rare, and most black bears will go away on their own once you make yourself seen and heard. If you ever find yourself in the same area as a bear:
Make yourself big! Put your arms up in the air and stand up tall, keeping your legs somewhat spread
Be loud! Speak to the bear in a loud voice, yelling if necessary
Don't make eye contact: Eye contact may make a bear feel threatened
If the bear is not moving away, slowly back away until the bear is out of sight. Never run! Bears are much faster than you are
Consider carrying bear spray if you frequent wild areas