Vancouver Island Black BearUrsus americanus vancouveri
The Vancouver Island black bear is one of the most common large mammals on Vancouver Island. Contact with humans is frequent, especially in small coastal communities, where easy access to food remnants in garbage cans can entice the bears into the communities, causing conflict. They are a larger, blacker bear than their mainland cousins, and skeletons found in caves near Port Hardy indicate that the bear has been a resident of the island for as long as 10,000 years.
The Vancouver Island black bear is blacker in colour than the mainland bear and is considered slightly larger, the females growing up to 180 kg, and the males reaching 275 kg. This is likely as a result of Vancouver Island being a genetically “older” variation of the bear, having remained relatively isolated from the mainland breeding pool.
The bear is quadripodal, but does often stand on its hind legs to look around, or to reach the upper branches of bushes when foraging. They are omnivorous and opportunistic feeders, usually eating the best of what is available. In the spring and summer, this consists mostly of succulent roots and shoots, any berry crops that are available, and assorted grubs and insects. They will also wander down the beaches at low tide to find crabs and any other easy meals. In the fall, the salmon return, and the bear turns its attention to spawning salmon, which provide a high percentage of the bears’ yearly protein intake. Winter is sparser on food, and the bears rely on the reserves of fat that they had built up over the summer. Contrary to popular belief, the bears do not truly hibernate, but enter a state more similar to a deep sleep. Unlike true hibernators, their metabolic activity is still close to normal, and their body temperature does not drop more than a few degrees.
Vancouver Island Range
The Vancouver Island black bear is distributed throughout the entire island, with higher concentrations in the uninhabited low-lying forests. Famous hotspots for bear sightings include Cape Scott Park, Sooke, Pacific Rim National Park, and Gold River. The bear’s population on the island is likely around 7,000 (though estimates of up to 12,000 can be found), and is considered one of the densest in the world.
The black bear requires a variety of easily accessible foods, and as a result, is usually found in the lower reaches of the island. Bears do venture higher in altitude, but this is generally only temporary, and usually in the summer. They will not inhabit areas densely populated by humans, but are not shy about coming into rural areas to forage, and frequent incursions by bears looking for an easy meal, often in trash cans, causes conflict between them and the local human community.
The Vancouver Island Black Bear has no natural predators. The males will occasionally fight one another, but this is not a major cause of mortality in the population. The largest current threat facing the bear is hunting by humans. Hunters come from all over the world to shoot black bears, and Vancouver Island is considered one of the best hunting grounds. Annual takes top 700 animals, which may represent more than ten percent of the total population a year; most ecologists believe a number too high to facilitate long term protection of the species.
However, in the foreseeable future, the black bear has a healthy, stable population and is not likely to decline.
Why they are Important on Vancouver Island
Being a distinct subspecies endemic to Vancouver Island, the bear forms a unique part of the ecosystem here. Several published studies have also documented the importance of the black bear in bringing salmon nutrients away from the streams and into the forest, providing essential nutrients to the trees, insects, and songbirds that live in the riparian zone.