Hunting Canada’s biggest, baddest black bears with Jim Shockey

Land of the giants

The rugged terrain of Vancouver Island offers an adrenaline-fuelled hunt for giant black bears

The author with a monster Vancouver Island bear from his mid-1990s hunt

It’s been several years now since I last hunted for black bears on Vancouver Island, and I’ve been getting the itch to return. So, I recently reached out to Shockey to see if the hunting was still as good as it ever was. There are still lots of big, old bears, he tells me, but hunting them has become more of a challenge due to the rhythms of the logging industry.

“Back in the 1960 to 1990 era, logging was a booming business on Vancouver Island,” Shockey says. “Clear-cut logging practices, while not pretty, benefitted the bear population by effectively turning vast areas at the low- to mid-mountain range into giant berry patches.”

Today, however, those large swathes of land have become second-growth monoculture dead zones, where the berry bushes and understory have long since disappeared under the shade of the tree canopy. Plus, logging has slowed down, and what logging remains is generally higher in the mountains, in smaller blocks that are less conducive to creating good bear habitat.

There are still lots of big, old bears, he tells me, but hunting them has become more of a challenge

“The result is that the bear population is reduced from what it was when you hunted here last, Ken,” Shockey explains. “Because of the change in habitat, it’s simply not capable of supporting the numbers of bears it once did. Plus, the bears are more difficult to find, see and hunt.” Nonetheless, he assures me, there’s still an abundance of bears living in places where the sun reaches the ground, allowing the understory to grow. It’s just that hunting them now requires more walking and less glassing.

“Despite the new challenges, we’re taking old bears, as we always have,” Shockey says, noting that the average age of the bears they take is nine and a half years, based on tooth aging. “Our average skull size, which is also an indicator of age, is the largest since back in the 1990s. Our success is still 100 per cent, but hunting days per bear has gone up.”

So, if I have this straight, the bears are as big as ever, but I’ll get to hunt a little longer to find the one I want. That sounds like a win-win to me, and reason enough for a return trip. If the idea of hunting Canada’s largest black bears interests you, a visit to Vancouver Island should be in your future, too.

Ken Bailey is Outdoor Canada‘s long-time hunting editor. 

Photo: -JvL- via Flickr

BRAWNY BRUINS

That Vancouver Island’s black bears are different from black bears found elsewhere isn’t mere speculation. Ecologists say there are two distinct lineages of black bears in North America—one found across most of the mainland, and the other inhabiting the Pacific coast region, including Vancouver Island. The coastal bears are genetically older than their mainland cousins, with 10,000-year-old skeletal evidence suggesting they’ve retained more of their ice-age characteristics. They are also genetically predisposed to be larger than mainland bears, complete with a stockier build, wider skull and larger teeth. Their fur is a deeper black, too; the variety of colours common among mainland bears is practically unheard of on the island.

Accurate population counts are difficult to conduct for bears anywhere, but even more so on Vancouver Island, where the vegetation is nearly impenetrable and much of the bear habitat is remote and/or difficult to access. The best estimates suggest the 31,000-square-kilometre island’s population is somewhere between 7,000 and 12,000 bears. That puts densities at roughly one bear for every 2.5 square kilometres, making it one of the densest bear populations in North America.

Historically, Vancouver Island’s black bears have had no natural enemies, except for humans and other black bears. That appears to be changing, however. In recent years, there have been several confirmed sightings of grizzlies—natural predators of black bears—at the north end of the island, having presumably swum across from the mainland.

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