You want to get up close and personal with nature – but not too close. If you are unfamiliar with hiking in areas where bears and cougars are at home, take heart! Black bears are found all over North America, and cougars, or mountain lions, in all of western North America and into Mexico. Problem encounters with people are few and far between, and are most often human caused.
We hope that the information in this post will not only give you confidence on your trek, but will also ensure that your outdoors experience does not jeopardize the safety of wildlife.
Bears in BC
Black bears are very common in British Columbia with population estimates ranging from 7,000-12,000 on Vancouver Island alone. (Don’t forget that British Columbia is larger than the total area of Washington State, Oregon and California combined – or roughly the size of France, Germany and the Netherlands combined). Despite the high population, aggressive encounters with bears remain very low.
Bears and Cougars on Vancouver Island
On Vancouver Island, Black bears, also called Brown bears, coexist with a healthy population of cougars. (And before you ask: Vancouver Island is larger than Belgium. It is 460 kilometres (290 mi) in length, 80 kilometres (50 mi) in width at its widest point, and has a population of roughly 760,000 people). There are no Grizzly bears on Vancouver Island. Like Black bears, cougars will avoid contact with people and are seldom sighted.
It is very unlikely that you will encounter either animal during your trip, though one of our hikers did see a bear on the trail near their B&B, eating blackberries. A cyclist came along and rang the bell on the handlebar. This caused the bear to bumble off the trail and everyone proceeded with their hike/ride.
The Biggest Threat
Cougars and bears have no natural predators on Vancouver Island. Instead, they are indirectly threatened by our behaviour: something as simple as people leaving food behind on trails or campsites can lead to their demise. When animals come across food that is not naturally found in their habitat, they are at risk of becoming ‘food conditioned. Once an animal has become food conditioned, they may seek the foods they enjoy outside of their natural habitat and venture into human habitat. Sadly, most large animals that enter into urban areas or even rural residential areas will be euthanized by officials.
What to do and not to do
Even though you won’t be camping on a Trek & Treats tour, please be very mindful of taking your garbage with you after a picnic, or use the provided garbage containers at the trailheads, which are bear safe and frequently serviced by parks staff.
Equally dangerous for both animal and human is an animal’s habituation to us, and even to cars. Although seeing a bear or cougar might seem like a great photo op, please avoid even those encounters. There are plenty of great bear photos around. Getting your very own photo – or worse, a selfie-with-bear – can contribute to the animal being at risk for its habituation to humans. The animal that learned from you that humans are friendly may surprise and scare someone next time, or worse, come into direct contact with a human. It would quite possibly need to be shot.
To avoid bears and cougars it is best to travel in a group, as you will likely talk often and be heard by wildlife. If you are traveling by yourself – and many of our hikers do – make sure you are being heard. We provide bear bells or whistles. Their purpose is to alerts bears and cougars to your location so they can avoid your path. After all, they, too, want to keep a safe distance. (Yes, we have heard the jokes about ‘bear dinner-bells’, and there are unanswered questions as to their effectiveness, but the experience of our hikers and the cyclist whose bell chased the bear away convinced us that the bells are a useful devise).
We also strongly advise that you walk during daylight hours (cougars are cats and as such, are nocturnal animals) and heed posted warnings.
Familiarize yourself with the characteristics of the local wildlife so you are able to identify the animal and react appropriately. A good resource is the BC Parks- Bears and Cougars Pamphlet.
Want to learn more about bears? Check out the Bear Smart Society’s article on Dispelling Bear Myths.