Recognizing food that bears eat can help raise your awareness of the possibility that bears are around where you are at any given moment.
Bears are omnivores, but while they love the ability to get a good protein source like an elk or a deer, almost 80% of a bear’s diet is fruits and vegetables. This is true of both grizzly bears and black bears. You may have heard that bears love berry season, but what berries do bears eat?
The plant with 3 names
While they love all berries, many (like wild strawberries) don‘t grow densely enough to interest a bear. A bear will eat 100,000-200,000 shepherdia berries a day – the caloric equivalent of 65 Big Macs a day – during the heart of berry season. So a bear’s favourite berries are ones that are densely packed on the bush, with a lot of bushes to choose from, and there are several of these. Tops on the list is the bush known as Buffalo Berry, or Soap Berry or by its Latin name, Shepherdia canadensis.
Shepherdia is a bush native across Canada and much of the US that will grow to about 5’ tall in this area. In berry season, the female plants will get 50 berries or more on a stem (male plants don’t get berries).
We’ve watched bears strip a stem of berries with one lick of their tongue, and a big patch of Shepherdia will keep a bear occupied for hours. Bears in berry bushes tend to get “head down and locked” and stop paying attention to anything other than their beloved berries. This is where we get in trouble, because the bears aren’t looking out for us. Two incidents in Canmore in 2016 with people and bears were as a result of folks unintentionally approaching bears who were sitting in bushes eating, and the bear chose to push the people away from their food source once surprised.
Shepherdia berries are usually red, but there’s a minor sub-species that have yellow/orange berries. The berries have a sweet outer skin that is protein rich. But the inside is heavy with saponin, which is a form of soap. Native Canadians would crush the berries and mix them with water, using the mixture to wash clothes. You can see a demonstration of making soap from Shepherdia berries here.
Saponin has diuretic properties, too, so while edible and high in Vitamin C, eating too many will make you sick. Most of the berry that the bears eat just get pooped out because of this. After extracting the sugar and protein, that diuretic property kicks in and the scat becomes red with berry innards and runny.
Native Canadians called Shepherdia “Buffalo Berry” because if you look carefully at the backside of a Shepherdia leaf, it’s covered in brown spots that they thought looked like a buffalo herd as you can see in the photo. They would also use the berries to make “Indian Ice Cream”. A recipe for this is below.
Where they’re found
Shepherdia generally grows in moister places low in valleys at elevations up to 1,600 m, though in Idaho can be found up to 2,500 m. It handles all sorts of dry, rocky, low nutrient soil types just fine. It is not an alpine plant, however, meaning during Shepherdia berry season, it’s the trailhead areas and valley trails you need to be most wary around.
Meet some of the other cool plants of K-Country here!
Indian Ice Cream
Makes 6-8 cups
1 cup Shepherdia berries
1 cup water
1 cup raspberries, strawberries or saskatoons (optional)
¼ cup sugar (to taste; boost to 1 cup if using just Shepherdia berries)
Add berries and water to a clean ceramic, glass or metal bowl (not plastic). Whip mixture with a beater on high until it has the consistency of beaten egg whites. Gradually and gently add sugar to the pink foam that forms. Serve foam immediately.