There are eight species of bears in the world and at least 44 “extant taxa,” meaning distinct subspecies, or “races.”
A subspecies is a group of animals who are, within the species they belong to, distinctly similar to each other but different, usually in very subtle ways, from other members of the species. Where their populations overlap with another subspecies, they freely interbreed.
One species of bear, the giant panda, found in the wild only in a small part of China, is officially recognized as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It was once thought to be more closely related to raccoons but is now known to be a true bear, albeit a most unusual one.
Five species and various subspecies of bears are considered to be “vulnerable” to endangerment. At least two distinct subspecies have been exterminated since 1600, the date when “modern” extinctions are deemed to have begun.
There are no bears native to Africa, Australia or Antarctica.
Three species are native to Canada, two of which are also native to Eurasia. The third, the American black bear, is restricted in its range to North America, including parts of Mexico.
One species, the spectacled, or Andean, bear, is considered “vulnerable” by the IUCN, but should probably be considered endangered. It is the only bear native to South America.
The largest carnivorous mammal ever known to have lived was the giant short-faced bear, which scientists estimate weighed, on average, 800 kilograms (more than 1,700 pounds) and could stand about 4 meters (about 13 feet) tall. It ranged throughout much of North America and was almost exclusively a meat eater. The species became extinct between 11,500 and 20,000 years ago. An adult male polar bear can be nearly as big and can reach a similar weight, thus is the largest of the living carnivores.
The three Canadian species are the American black bear (so called in distinction from the quite different Eurasian black bear), the polar bear and the brown bear, which in North America often is called the grizzly bear.
Seeing bears in the wild is often no easy thing, and yet they are still there, still living as they have lived for thousands of years, in the ever-dwindling and ever-changing Canadian wilderness.
Canada is bear country, more so than anywhere else left on the planet. It hosts the bulk of the population of all three of its native species.
But bears are both revered and feared by humans. They have been caught and made to fight in pits, have had sequined tutus put on them and forced to “dance” in circuses, have had their skins made into countless rugs or snarling taxidermy mounts in trophy hunters’ dens, have languished in zoos or “performed” in movies and TV shows, but they have never been domesticated. The genes they carry reflect cold, primal times when many other great, shaggy animals, now long gone, roamed the Pleistocene landscape. They have been credited with ushering human souls to the afterlife, and with various spiritual powers, and are seen in many cultures as almost interchangeable with humans — sharing the same foods, standing erect with forward-pointing eyes, flat of foot and powered by very similar musculature, although imbued with physical might beyond human ability.
They share the land with us, but we don’t share fairly or well, and slowly, or not so slowly, they give ground. And yet there is no bear or human who chooses his or her species — we all are part of the overall whole, and we, being human, are capable of great evil toward them, yes, but also of encompassing the bears, understanding that they pose a threat that is real but minimal compared to the threats we pose for both them and our own kind.
We have choices. The bears want to be left alone, to be bears, to live out natural lives in nature, and it is an option that, if we care, we also can advocate. The choice is ours. A world with bears and other wildlife is richer, more complex, more wonderful and more magical than what is left when we let them slip away, or actively destroy them, and we walk alone.