Skip to content

COLUMN: Bears can smell 2,000 times more acutely than humans

Some fascinating facts about bears from WildSafe’s Dave White
Photo: Kirk Friederich

Bears have a very developed sense of smell. How developed? Well, some studies suggest they have seven times the sensitivity of blood hounds or close to 2,000 times that of a human. The massive number of scent receptors in the bears nose is combined with an olfactory bulb in the brain that is five times the size of that found in a human. This aids the bear in processing scents from great distances.

Depending on wind conditions, bears can detect a carcass or garbage from several kilometers away. Renowned bear biologist Stephen Herrero recounted seeing grizzly bears tracking in on new born elk calves, which are supposedly scentless, from hundreds of yards away. Bears’ power of smell is possibly the most acute among terrestrial mammals.

The control of odour producing waste is then an important tool in preventing the attraction of a bear to your property. Bears, like all animals, evolved to economize the amount of energy they use in their daily routine. They won’t waste time in checking out a property without some promise of a reward. Garbage is the biggest attractant through most of the year. That is because smelly garbage imitates the scent of an animal carcass which is a high value food for bears. Garbage locked in a shed or a bear resistant bin prevents bears getting a reward and becoming conditioned to human attractants, but it doesn’t prevent attracting them to your property.

The best policy is to completely avoid putting food waste in your garbage until collection day. The best technique is to immediately freeze food waste before it starts to decompose. Even dirty diapers can be frozen. Placed in a double bag in a deep freezer they will quickly be solidly frozen and will not contaminate other items. Bears can not discern the difference between human and natural foods, so it is up to people to take extra steps to prevent short circuiting a bear’s natural cycle. In B.C. the careless storage of waste is responsible for death of many hundreds of bears a year (469 in 2017).

Bears, through their scat, play an important role in nature by dispersing seeds of berry producing plants, and transferring energy throughout the forest. The loss of hundreds of bears every year means these bears are not performing the role nature has assigned them, a role that benefit’s humans as well as nature.

If you wish to discuss any other issues regarding wildlife, contact the WildSafeBC coordinator David White by email: or call 250-505-6007.

If you are experiencing a conflict with wildlife please call the Conservation Officer Service, RAPP Line at 1 (877) 952-7277.

WildSafeBC gratefully acknowledges the support of the program by the Ministry of Environment, the Columbia Basin Trust, The City of Nelson, and areas E&F of the Regional District of the Central Kootenay.