By Al Raychard
Officially, bears are considered omnivorous, basically meaning they are opportunistic and will eat a wide variety of foods, including meat, which also makes them somewhat carnivorous. Bears are known to kill young moose, caribou and deer and will partake of protein-rich carrion, especially early in the spring after leaving the dens. But in general, bears may be the least carnivorous of North America’s carnivores and on average 80- to 85-percent of a bear’s diet consists of various grasses and forbs, berries and other soft mast and various hard mast. One estimate puts the average dietary intake at 59-percent berries, acorns and various seeds, 28-percent other vegetation and 13-percent insects and meat, depending upon the time of year.
Two factors always come to play when bears are on the hunt for food, they must be highly nutritious and easily digested. Bears can digest plant matter better than other meat eaters but because they lack a multi-chambered stomach like elk, deer and other herbivores they must eat a lot of it to obtain sufficient nutrition. In a word, what they eat goes straight through them, as anyone who has seen scat when bears are feeding heavily on spring succulents or during peak berry season can attest. To put on the reserves needed to carry them through winter bears should put on roughly five pounds of weight daily starting in late summer until they hit the dens. That equates to about 45 pounds of high calorie food each day. To reach that goal, bears will cover wide areas to find the quantity and quality foods needed. Once found they will often feed throughout the day, particularly in late summer and fall as food quality and abundance increases.
To everything there is a season, and this is especially true of natural foods bears take advantage of and rely on. In spring and early summer, common foods include last year’s berries, new grasses, forbs and other broadleaf plants, various tubers, especially members of the wild pea family, grubs, ants and other insects when found, winterkill deer and other meat sources. Black bears will often climb aspen trees for the fresh buds or eat the sugar-rich cambium layer under the bark of coniferous trees, often killing it in the process. Where they are available the pine nuts of Whitebark pine are high in protein and easy to digest and are extremely important in spring, summer and fall, especially to grizzly bears but also for black bears. The trouble is, while these spring and early summer foods are nutritious they are not overly abundant. They will sustain and keep bears alive but will not put on the weight lost over the winter or put on the reserves needed for the coming winter.
In fact, the early summer period can be a lean time for bears and it is not on common for body weight to drop due to the lack of high nutritious foods. During this short period berries, acorns and other foods have not ripened or are not readily available and many spring foods have disappeared. During the calving season bears will take advantage of newborn elk, moose, deer and caribou when possible taking up to 50-percent of new born elk and 40-percent of moose in some jurisdictions but the young ungulates quickly learn how to escape and the opportunity doesn’t last long. Other rodents and various squirrels will also be consumed as will a variety of insects. In alpine meadows and north-facing slopes spring green-up comes late and bears will move higher to take advantage of late succulents. In some parts of the west grizzly bears particularly grizzly but also black bear will travel to high mountain rock slides to take gorge on adult army cutworm moths where as many as 40,000 may be consumed each day providing much needed calories. At lower elevations bears will feed on dandelions in meadows, various sedges and cabbage-like plants near streams and other wet areas.
It is when summer wanes and fall approaches bears go on a feeding frenzy. In late August and early September a host of carbohydrate-rich berries and fruits on both sides of the continental divide come into season and wherever they are found bears will be near. Combined with the protein foods still available, bears start to put on the weight need to carry them through winter.
On the west side of the divide, currents, gooseberries, high bush cranberries, huckleberries, bilberries, blueberries, salmon berries and blackberries, to name but a few add to the available smorgasbord. Although some of these berries are available on the east side of the divide, in general berry selection is more limited. Huckleberries, raspberry, strawberry and crowberries are readily available but perhaps the most important is the buffalo berry. These round, bright red to orange, somewhat translucent berries begin to ripen in late August and peak in September throughout the Rockies but especially on the eastern slopes, primarily in lodge pole pine forests. Once ripe they are among the most important foods of both black and grizzly bears, especially in the northern Rockies. Chokecherry, commonly found on both sides of the divide from Canada to Arizona and New Mexico is also an important late summer and early autumn food. Black bears especially will often pull the shrubs or trees to the ground in their zest to get the berry clusters breaking the limbs in the process. Wild apples, plums, grapes are also utilized where available and in the southwest prickly pears, manzanita berries, juniper berries and mesquite beans are all important as are acorns and pine cone seeds. All become available in September into October coinciding with bear season in most areas.
In some parts of the west fish continue to be an important food source, especially during fall salmon runs. In the Yellowstone region black and grizzly bear have the same basic diet their ancestors had 150 years ago including the occasional trout and in Idaho, Washington and Oregon nearly 60-percent of the diet of grizzly bears historically came from salmon. It is about the same today for bears in Alaska and parts of British Columbia. Salmon provides a great deal of protein and packs on much needed weight for the winter. In areas where grizzly and brown bears have access to runs studies have shown bears are up to 80-percent larger, females produce 25-percent more young and bear populations in general are up to 50-percent more dense than bears that fatten on late summer and fall berries and other foods due to the available of salmon and the longer growing season along the coast. Unfortunately, few if any grizzly bears currently rely on salmon in the Pacific northwest states although black bears will utilize salmon in areas where runs occur.
Knowing what bears eat, and especially when and where to find it is important when hunting bears and will greatly increase a hunter’s odds of success. As mentioned previously, wherever the most abundant and prime foods are is where bear bears will be found, especially in April, May and June as bears leave the dens, recondition their alimentary canals and blow their plugs and aggressively look for food to satisfy a growing hunger, and again in the fall as they strive to put on weight and fat reserves for winter. During these periods bears are highly active and they coincide with hunting seasons in most jurisdictions.
The more the hunter knows about bear foods, which are available at the time of the hunt and where to find them is particularly important in states and provinces where baiting and the use of dogs is not legal and spot and stalk and similar techniques must be used. A hunter’s primary advantage in these situations is the bear’s constant search for food. But it is also important in jurisdictions where baiting is legal since the variety, abundance and quality of natural foods one year to the next often determines bear activity and visitation frequency at bait stations. Natural foods are always preferred over baits offered by outfitters and guides and during peak soft and hard mast years it is not uncommon for bears to visit bait stations less often, at odd times and irregular intervals and for shorter periods if all. The opposite is generally true during low production years. When natural foods are scarce bears typically hit bait more often, oftren on a regular schedule and in general bait stations are far more active. By the same token, in a number of states studies have consistently shown during years when fall foods are plentiful bears remain outside the dens longer increasing hunting opportunity. During low production years bears often enter dens early making hunting more difficult. In all cases and with all said and done the availability and abundance of natural foods in a given area plays an important roll in hunting bears.
The challenge in learning these foods is bears will take advantage of just about anything edible. There are literally hundreds of various types of vegetation, soft and hard mast and other foods on both sides of the Continental Divide from Alaska and western Canada to Arizona and New Mexico bears will consume. For the average hunter learning them all would be a monumental task but the bottom line is it really isn’t necessary. Bear hunting seasons take place in the spring and fall and foods available during these periods are the ones to concentrate on. Also, keep in mind bears utilize the most nutritious foods first. In the spring, this generally means tender young forbs and other broadleaf plants to provide calories and meat for much needed protein. In late summer and fall it means various berries, fruits and nuts and meat when available. Concentrating on these, learn to recognize them, when they are available in a given area and where to find them should do the trick, or at least provide a good head start. Keep in mind, bears have about seven months to fill their nutritional needs for the entire year and they will move to high or low elevations and across great landscapes to find the foods they need. As a consequence, hunting strategies and locations often have to change to where the most abundant foods are available.
The various foods mentioned and listed here are generally considered primary foods in the west, but not all are available in all locations. Blueberries and huckleberry, for example are primarily found on the west side of the divide and cactus fruits primarily in the southwest. Other foods are more widespread. There are at least 19 varieties of the highly valued Hedysarum and they a pretty much found throughout the west on both side of the divide. To get started hunters should check with their state or provincial wildlife department or natural resources agencies for information on wild foods important to bears in the area they plan to hunt. Many will even provide information on the types of habitats they are found and when they are available, key information hunters can put to good use.
SPRING/EARLY SUMMER FOODS
- Glacier lily bulbs
- Various sedges and grasses
- Wild pea
- Whitepine bark seeds
- Tree buds-aspen, willow, maple and ash
- Hedysarum roots
- Cow parsnip
- Last seasons berries
- Tree cambium
- Ants/ant larve/grub/moths and other insects
LATE SUMMER/FALL FOODS
- Fish, especially salmon and spawning trout
- Various berries and fruits including currents, gooseberries, chokecherries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, huckleberries, salmon berries, baffaloberries, crowberries, high and low bush cranberries, wild cherry, grapes and apples
- Hedysarum roots
- Pine nuts
- Sweet clover
- Ants, worms and grubs
- Manzanita fruit
- Juniper berries
- Mesquite beans
- Prickley pear
Chokecherries are common in many parts of the west and are a favorite fall bear food. (Below)
Blueberries are found on both side of the divide but are more common on the west side. Wherever they are available bears will take advantage. (Below)
Bramble fruits like blackberries are highly prized by bears. blackberries are found near old homesteads, burned-over areas and river and creek bottoms. (Below)
Raspberries are a common fruit is parts of the west, especially the northern Rockies and Pacific northwest. (Below)
There are several varieties of hedysarum and they are found throughout the west. Bears will utilize the plants and roots whenever and wherever it is found. (Below)
Buffaloberries are a favorite of grizzly and black bears and are common in the west. (Below)
One of the most important fall bear foods of bears in the southwest is fruit of the prickly pear cactus. In high production years bears will feed on pears more than anything else. (Below)