Both the black bear and the grizzly bear make the boreal forest their home. The black bear is the smaller of the two species, but is also the more common and wide ranging. In appearance, the black bear has a short, stocky body, usually a little over one to almost two metres in length. Male bears tend be on average about twenty percent larger than the females. Its fur is quite shaggy and, despite the bear’s name, can come in a variety of shades, from black to dark or golden brown. Black bears can be found in forested thickets and swamplands, climbing trees or foraging through woodland clearings for food. Omnivorous by nature, black bears subsist mainly on plants like leaves, berries, roots, fruits, and flowers, but can also eat insects, small animals, or carrion. Black bears are only active through the spring, summer, and autumn months, seasons which do not last long in the north. In the winter, black bears hibernate and do not become active again until the following spring.
The grizzly, or brown bear, is more common in the mountainous regions of the boreal forest than anywhere else. It has a large body that can range in length from just under two to a little over two-and-one-half metres in length. Fur colour can be brown, golden, black, and on rare occasions, almost white. White tipped guard hairs give grizzlies the grizzled appearance that earned them their name. While they are omnivorous like black bears, grizzlies derive their diet from more animal meat than black bears do. Like the black bear, however, grizzlies hibernate during the winter.
While not the first choice among northern Aboriginal Peoples as a source of meat, bear meat is considered edible, and can be consumed after it is boiled, dried, or roasted. Bear fat is clear, colourless, and used as grease for frying and cooking foods like bannock. Bear fat is also useful in the process of soapmaking.
Different parts of bear had various potential uses. When cleaned, a bear’s stomach could be used as a fat or food storage container. Claws and teeth could be used to adorn clothing accessories, or strung into necklaces. Medicinally, the back of a bear’s tongue was used in the treatment of cancer. Bear fur and tanned hide could be made into mitts, hats, and mukluks. The fur could also be used as a floor covering, a blanket, or a toboggan cover.