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Watch For The Signs

How can you tell if bears have been frequenting the area? They leave many signs behind. Learning to look for the signs of bears can also alert you potential problems before they occur, especially if the signs are fresh. You should also learn to tell the difference between black and grizzly bears from a distance.

Black Bear Track - Photo Copyright Ward Cameron 2001Tracks

Tracks are one key indicator of bears. Black and grizzly bears also have very different tracks. The most important difference in the two bears feet are in the length of the claws. Black bears have shorter claws, while the long claws of a grizzly can extend up to 10 cm (3.9 in). When identifying tracks, there are numerous characteristics to look for. While claw length can help identify those tracks with clear imprints, there are two more reliable indicators of species. Black bear tracks tend to have the toes slightly separated, whereas grizzly tracks show toes that are usually joined together. Also, the arc of the toes is greater in black bears. To illustrate this, place one end of a straight edge at the base of the big toe, and line the straight edge with the front of the foot pad. If the other end of the ruler passes through the baby toe between the middle and the base, the tracks belong to a grizzly. If instead, the ruler runs through the smallest toe between the middle and the tip, then you have black bear tracks.



Grizzly Track

Black Bear Track


Bear scat is another good indicator of bear activity. It is a good practice not to touch scat with your hands while examining it. Don't spend a lot of time trying to differentiate between black bear and grizzly scat as the two are even difficult to tell apart in the lab. Historically, biologists have used a simple estimate that scats in excess of 5 cm (2 in) in diametre generally belong to grizzlies. Unfortunately, during research conducted by Stephen Herrero, 58 percent of grizzly scats were actually smaller than 5 cm in diametre, thus proving this rule inaccurate. The scat varies quite dramatically based on what the bear is eating at a particular time of year. During August, when the bears are fattening up on buffaloberries, the scat takes on a blackish-red appearance with plenty of buffaloberry seeds visible. If a cursory examination shows the remains of roots, or tubers, the scat likely belongs to a grizzly since black bears lack the claws to reliably dig up these plants. 
Grizzly scat after eating Buffaloberry - Click to see a larger image - Photo Copyright Ward Cameron 2001Bears may feed upon a large carcass for several weeks, and surprising a bear at this time can be very dangerous. Stephen Herrero suggests learning to identify scat of bears that have been feeding on meat so that you can use this as a sign to leave the area, or at least to be very vigilant. When bears are feeding on meat, the scat is usually black and runny. Their may be some hair visible. While scat made up of plant material may also be black, it is usually more fibrous in nature. Also, scat made up of meat remains tends to smell whereas plant scat does not. Examining the scat can tell you how fresh it is. For instance, have insects colonized it yet? Are the plants underneath the scat still fresh and green or have they yellowed?  If the scat is heavily concentrated within a small area, you may have also located a bedding down area. While most are used only briefly, check for other signs of bears such as hair or hollow scrapes on the ground. If you find evidence of garbage in the scat, you may have a habituated bear in the area and you may want to move on. 

Girzzly Dig in Kananaskis Country - Click To See A Larger ImageGrizzly Diggings

In spring and fall, grizzly bears actively dig up roots, tubers, corms, bulbs and small animals such as ground squirrels. The first time you come across a grizzly dig, it is usually an amazing feeling. These diggings can be very extensive in nature, and may show evidence of repeated diggings. When you come across a dig site, you can tell how recent the dig is by looking at the dirt that has been excavated. If it has been deposited on top of local plants, check to see if they plants beneath the dirt are still alive. If they have been covered for some time, they may not look as healthy as the surrounding plants. Fresh digs indicate that a bear may still be in the area. You should also take note of what they have been digging...bulbs, roots or ground squirrels. If they were digging roots, look to see if the remaining exposed roots still look fresh or wilted. All of these things can help you estimate the length of time since the bear was at the site. 


If you are hiking and notice an abundance of ravens or crows, you may be near a carcass. Since numerous bears may feed on a single carcass, this is another sign to leave the area immediately. You may even smell the carcass if the wind is blowing in your face. Grizzlies often bury a carcass to save it for later feeding. Again, this is a sure sign to head home.

Black Bear Claw Marks on a trembling aspen tree - click to see a larger imageMarking of Territories

Finally, bears often rub, bite or scrape trees as a way of marking their territory. Some trees will be repeatedly marked by the same bear, or by other bears in succession over the years. Black bears, are good climbers and often the claw marks may permanently scar the bark of aspen trees. Learn to watch for these marks and you'll amaze your friends.

Bear Trails

Human built and hiker defined trails are often easy to follow. In the mountains, many traditional hiking routes are not formally recognized on maps, but have become easy to follow simply through repeated use over the years. Animals like bears also have traditional routes that they follow. If you are moving through dense bush, you may encounter one of these trails. The main difference between hiker defined trails and game (or bear) trails is in the height of the trail. If you suddenly find that you must crouch down low to make your way along a well defined route, you may be making your way along a bear trail. These tunnel-like trails are not a place that you will want to spend a significant amount of time as bears are known to regularly use them.

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