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BEAR UPDATE: Body Language of Bears



Recognizing the ‘readable’ behaviours black bear communicate to people during encounters

Black Bear Researcher

Encounters between bears and people provide a host of unpredictable variables. Each bear is as much an individual as each human. Each bear has had different experiences living within the influence of human life (people’s attitudes, human-food attractant use, and habitat loss).

Bear behaviour varies according to sex, age, and experiences with humans, use of human food attractants, and overall habitat quality. Human behaviour in a bear encounter varies with that person’s age, sex, experience-knowledge of bears, pre-encounter activity, and overall personality type (under pressure).

For the successful co-existence of one intelligent species to the next, bears and people need to communicate. Bears have the largest brain relative to body size of all carnivores (tigers, lions, cheetahs, cougars, bobcats, lynx, wolves, and coyotes), allowing them to exhibit high intelligence capable of excellent learning and memory. These attributes are reinforced seasonally as bears search, identify, learn, and reward themselves with the location of food sources.

Whether content or distraught, hungry or full, non-threatened or threatened, bears share an array of characteristic physical body language which allows them to express their "mood" to each other and more importantly, at this stage, toward people. Below is an outline of characteristics displayed by bears during encounters with people.

Non-threatened or unconcerned bears (common in residential areas)

• Continues feeding activities undisturbed

• Continues walking or foraging

• Continues feeding in tree – may look down when you talk or move around

• Continues activities with young (cubs or yearlings) on ground

• Continues resting, sleeping, or denning – opens eyes and/or lifts head

• Habituated bear may turn its back to you or resume activity appearing to "ignore" you

Nervous or curious bears (common in residential areas)

• Walks or bolts into forest cover (may exhale loud "whoosh") upon your presence (most frequent reaction to encounter with human)

• Stops and/or changes initial activity to become alert (to your presence or other bears, dogs, coyotes, etc.)

• Hesitant, ears cupped forward and "sensing air" by opening and closing mouth while sniffing

• Sways head back and forth or rises on rear legs (unsure and trying to gain your sense)

• Alert, hesitant, and may take few steps forward or backward and/or pace around

Disturbed bears (moderately threatened during encounters < 30 metres)

• Walks stiff-legged "punching" ground with paws

• Soft chuffs ("biting" at air)

• Head lowered swaying back and forth

• Salivate

• Whine or throat moans

Threatened bears (defensive aggression during sudden encounters < 20 metres)

• Pops jaws (opens and closes mouth quickly) and salivates

• Paw-swats ground and/or nearby log, stump, shrub, or tree

• Bolts to base of tree clinging to trunk while vocalizing huffs (common to cubs and other sub-adult bears < 4 years)

• Bluff charges 1-5 metres in your direction or series of short bluff charges while popping jaws

Encounters with black bears are common throughout the Sea-to-Sky Corridor and frequently result in numerous complaints each year. High numbers of bear complaints usually increase the potential for black bear destruction. Throughout the Sea-to-Sky Corridor expect to see black bears from March through December, and to manage human-food bear attractants accordingly. Take time to learn about seasonal bear behaviour, sign, and food habits. Many potential conflicts with bears are mere encounters of bears passing through greenbelt corridors of a residential community. Many such corridors provide enhanced, natural foods such as berries, clover, and skunk cabbage in addition to potential human-food attractants. It is up to people to react responsibly. Unique, outreach-education on local black bears stimulates interest and gives people confidence in interpreting bear activities. Remember, during all encounters, give bears room to escape and never allow a bear to approach close. If a bear is aware of your presence, speak quietly while backing away slowly. If a bear approaches, yell and wave your arms or a stick over your head while walking slowly backwards.

Hand-outs on understanding bear body language and respective encounter response guidelines will be available at the Whistler and Squamish monthly slide presentations of Sea-to-Sky Corridor Black Bear Life History. Presentations are from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Fairmont-Chateau in Whistler on the last Tuesday of each month and at the Squamish Public Library the first Wednesday of each month from April through December, with the exception of August and November. The next slide show in Whistler is on April 24; in Squamish the next show is on May 2.

Bear Update columns are sponsored by Pique Newsmagazine. Questions or information about black bears call 604-898-2713 or by e-mail

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