Bears have shaped the story of what it means to be human in North America, inspiring the stories we tell, the names of constellations, and the earliest forms of visual art, which have been preserved for thousands of years on cave walls. Many Indigenous groups in Canada regard Bear as a medicine keeper and close relative, referring to them with reverence as “Grandmother” or “Sister.” Today, there are three species of wild bears who roam the mountains, forests, coasts and Arctic tundras in North America, including grizzly bears, polar bears and American black bears. But since the early 20th century, the fields of bear research, guiding, filmmaking and conservation have been mainly occupied by men.
“Generally speaking, the world of carnivore research is a male-dominated space,” says Courtney Hughes, a conservation scientist who studies grizzly bears in Grande Cache, Alta. “But we’re seeing increasing leadership by women, including women of colour.”
Today, Hughes and other women in North America are changing the narrative on what it means to study the movements and behaviours of bears, to view and film them in their wild habitats and ecosystems, to learn their language of body movements and vocalizations, and to advocate for their protection from habitat loss and trophy hunting. Indigenous bear guides, including Sherry Moon and Krista Duncan, are reconnecting with bears, culture and history on their traditional territories. “Every year, I’m seeing more and more women getting into bear guiding,” says Moon.
What motivates these women to spend long hours in the field with bears, following their tracks and learning their language? For Karine Genest, a Yukon-based filmmaker and polar bear guide, the lessons of working with our Ursus kin are many. “The bears ground me,” she says. “Being with bears, you don’t have a choice. You have to focus on the present moment.”
Here, Moon, Duncan, Genest and other women share what it’s like to work to protect wild bear populations in North America.
Grizzly bear guide
Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nation
Port McNeill, B.C.
Sherry Moon knows many of the grizzly bears by name in the Kwakwaka’wakw territory. Since 2016, she’s been working as a guide with Sea Wolf Adventures, facilitating safe ways for visitors to view bears, and travelling by boat and on foot to the favoured places where they come to fish for salmon, flip rocks in search of crabs or dig for roots.
There are the brother bears, Andy and Roy—Andy, a superior fisher, has been known to help his younger brother catch fish—and Caroline, an old matriarch who occasionally forages in close proximity to a black bear (a rare thing for grizzlies to do). Moon recalls a day when she bumped into Numas, an old male grizzly whose name means “Wise One” in the Kwak’wala language, sleeping behind a tree. Numas calmly lifted his head and looked at Moon, and then lowered his huge skull and went back to sleep.
“It’s like he knew I wasn’t a threat to him and he wasn’t a threat to me,” she says. “It’s amazing to feel that connection with the bears we work with.”
Although Moon grew up with grizzlies in her backyard, she never imagined she’d become a bear guide. But when her uncle, Mike Willie, started Sea Wolf Adventures, offering Indigenous-led wildlife and cultural tours in their home territory, she knew she wanted to be involved. She joined the team as a boat driver in 2015. “I love being on the water and being with wildlife,” she says. The following year, she was leading her own tours.
It’s not only her love for grizzlies that draws Moon to guiding. It’s about being back in her territory. “When I started walking these rivers that haven’t been walked in a long time, due to colonization, it brought me a lot of pride and empowerment,” she says. “Reconnecting with my traditional territory has given me a bigger sense of my own identity, of who I am and where I come from.”
Polar bear guide and wildlife filmmaker
It’s an unusually warm day in early November, and Karine Genest focuses her lens on a large male polar bear, who’s sauntering along the open waters of Hudson Bay. Every year for the past decade, Genest, a wildlife cinematographer and polar bear guide, has travelled to Churchill, Man.—the polar bear capital of the world—to document the annual migration of these giants from land to sea ice on Hudson Bay.
The bear approaches a GoPro camera positioned on the rocky shoreline and opens his jaws wide as if to swallow the camera whole. “Eh, eh, eh!” Genest calmly calls out from 30 feet away as if scolding a dog. Incredulously, he lifts his head and ambles off along the bay. “Thank you!” she sings out.
Over the years, Genest has become intimately attuned to the language of bears, working closely with bear guide and filmmaker Kelsey Eliasson, who runs the Churchill, Man.-based guiding company Polar Bear Alley.
“It’s all about controlling your body language and emotions,” explains Genest. “If you want the bear to be fearful, you can make them afraid. But they aren’t naturally fearful; they’re curious, like us.”
She’s become familiar with many of the individual polar bears who migrate back to the same places in Churchill, including a young female whom she fondly calls Peanut. Genest first met Peanut when she was an orphaned yearling cub. Despite the high odds against her, the young bear survived in the wild. Several years ago, Genest was overcome with joy to see Peanut, whom she recognized from her calm and tolerant demeanour, return to her favourite resting spot along Hudson Bay, older, wiser and with two young cubs in tow. “She’s really a great mom,” says Genest.
Genest’s feature-length documentary, L’esprit des ours (The Spirit of the Bears), focuses on Indigenous storytelling and science to celebrate the deep bonds that have existed between people and bears for millennia. Genest is striving to change the way bears are often perceived as “nuisances” in North America by advocating for peaceful coexistence between people and bears.
“It’s not that I want to be that voice [for bears], but if they need one, I want to be it,” she says. “We are sharing the land with them—and they’re a part of us.”
Spirit bear guide, skipper and field technician
Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation
Krista Duncan was born in the village of Klemtu, B.C., a member of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation. Growing up in the Great Bear Rainforest, a massive protected area that stretches along coastal B.C., she’d listen to the stories of her great-grandmother, Violet Neasloss, the last fluent speaker of Sgüüx̱s, a dialect of Southern Tsimshian. “They were about treating [bears] the way you’d want to be treated—with respect.”
In 2012, Duncan started her first season working as a guide with Spirit Bear Lodge. She found herself spending long hours alone in the forest, making her scent and her behaviours familiar to the mooksgm ol (spirit bears), ksamxsm ol (black bears) and medi’ik (grizzly bears) that gathered along the streams to fish. (Spirit bears, whose Latin name is Ursus americanus kermodei, are a rare subspecies of black bear whose white fur is caused by a recessive gene.) Later that summer, she earned the trust of a black bear, who began leaving her cubs with Duncan while she went fishing. “She basically had us babysit,” she recalls. “It made me fall in love with guiding.”
The same year, Duncan began working as a research technician with the Spirit Bear Research Foundation, setting up a network of snag sites to collect hair samples for DNA analysis. (Snag sites are typically trees or power lines wrapped with a strand of barbed wire; bears—lured by the scent of a bait mixture—will rub their backs up against the wire, thus snagging some of their long, coarse hairs.) The project was a collaboration between the University of Victoria and five Indigenous nations; its goal was to monitor the movements and salmon consumption of black and grizzly bears.
In 2017, Duncan and her colleagues successfully lobbied to end the trophy hunt on grizzly bears in the Great Bear Rainforest. But while hunting white spirit bears is illegal, hunting black bears— who carry the recessive white fur gene—is not. “We’re fighting for something that we want to keep for thousands of years to come,” says Duncan.
Over the past decade, she’s watched generations of bears grow up in her territory, including a young spirit bear, Cedar, whom she met as an orphaned cub. “He didn’t know how to fish because his mother hadn’t taught him,” she says. But Cedar adapted, feeding on scraps left behind by other bears. “Today, he’s the dominant white bear along the creek,” she says. “Bears have taught me about patience and strength. They are the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.”
Polar bear scientist
Alysa McCall will never forget the first time she visited Churchill, Man., in 2010, flying over the frozen Hudson Bay to follow the movements of female polar bears. McCall, then a master’s student, worked with a team of scientists to measure tranquilized bears to gain a better understanding of their age and relative health. “Seeing the bears up close— feeling their bodies—was really impactful.”
McCall’s own research as a master’s student tracked the patterns of female polar bears on the sea ice. She analyzed decisions made by females with cubs and without them, discovering when and where they travelled, what type of sea ice they preferred, and when and where they would come ashore. These are critical questions when it comes to the conservation of polar bears, who depend on sea ice to survive.
“Polar bears should really be called ‘ice bears,’” explains McCall. “They navigate the Arctic sea ice in search of seal blubber, the most calorically dense food on the planet—it’s what sustains them.”
Since that first flight over the frozen bay, McCall has dedicated her career to working for polar bear conservation. Her academic research dovetailed into a collaboration with Polar Bears International (PBI), a non-profit focused on protecting the bears and their habitat. In 2011, McCall helped the group launch its online Polar Bear Tracker, which offers users a “secret peek into the world of polar bears” as they journey onto the ice. (She officially joined the PBI team in 2014.)
Climate change is resulting in the rising, record-breaking temperatures of ocean waters, which affects ice formation on Hudson Bay. “The previous three years, we had great freeze-up—right on time,” explains McCall. But in 2021, above-average temperatures in Churchill postponed freeze-up for nearly two weeks, which then delayed the bears’ migration onto the ice. “We know that polar bears will be spending more time on land [and fewer days hunting seals] as the ice continues to decline,” says McCall. “We’re already seeing that happen in southern Hudson Bay in Ontario.”
Unfortunately, there are no short-term fixes. “We really do need to convince this global community of leaders to work on [reducing] carbon emissions.”
Grande Cache, Alta.
“I’ve always had an affinity for—and connection with—carnivore species,” says Courtney Hughes, reflecting on her early childhood in northern Ontario. There, she often followed her father, a trapper and hunter, on game trails that wove through black bear territory.
Flash forward 30 years and Hughes is following in the footsteps of Ursus arctos, or grizzly bears, in northwestern Alberta, trudging through boreal swamplands and along the edges of farmland, retrieving hairs from a network of snag sites. Hughes and her team have collected thousands of hair samples for DNA analysis to determine the first-ever population baseline for grizzly bears in this remote region.
The study is part of a province-wide effort to recover the grizzly bear population in Alberta. In 2010, grizzlies were designated a threatened species, with fewer than 700 bears roaming the landscape. Every year, grizzlies are killed by poachers, in head-on collisions on highways and railways, or as a result of coming into close contact with humans. While many people fear grizzlies, the chances of being injured by one are approximately 1 in 2.7 million, according to the U.S. National Park Service. Despite this, people still experience negative interactions with bears that place both parties at risk. For this reason, Hughes decided to dedicate her PhD research at the University of Alberta to better understanding how humans and grizzly bears can coexist, with the goal of reducing instances of human-bear conflict.
“There’s ongoing contention surrounding grizzly bear recovery in Alberta. While there’s a lot of great biological science on grizzly bears, there’s been a gap on understanding the human dimensions of grizzly bear management,” explains Hughes. “I was curious: What do people who live with grizzlies really think, or want with regard to recovery policy?”
Hughes interviewed more than 60 people who live or work in grizzly bear ranges across Alberta, including ranchers, oil and gas workers, and landowners. The results surprised her.
“Only one individual said they didn’t like grizzly bears,” says Hughes. Her data shows that people’s relationships with bears—and their fear of them—is highly complex and often situational. “It’s a matter of working with people to understand what they know [about grizzly bears] and want to know, and what they’re willing to do to mitigate risks for conflict, as well as the types of support they need to do so,” says Hughes.
Today, in the name of conflict mitigation, Hughes is encouraging foresters and oil and gas workers to carry bear spray as a deterrent, asking ranchers to dispose of dead livestock in bearproof containers and suggesting that farmers set up electric fences around their grain bins to deter break-ins. In 2016, Hughes launched a citizen-science app called GrizzTracker, which collects data on people’s sightings of grizzly bears in northwestern Alberta.
“I absolutely think people want bears on the landscape,” says Hughes. “It’s less about human-bear conflict and more about human-human conflict. It’s about working with people to achieve grizzly bear recovery in Alberta.”