British Columbia  is one of the best provinces in Canada for wildlife watching. Thanks to a diverse topography that provides a wide variety of habitat, more species of mammals are found here than in any other province or territory in the country.
Two species of bears—black bears and grizzlies—are present in British Columbia . Both species are widespread and abundant across the province. The two can be differentiated by size and shape. Grizzlies are larger than black bears and have a flatter, dish-shaped face and a distinctive hump of muscle behind the neck. Color is not a reliable way to tell them apart. Black bears are not always black. They can be brown or cinnamon, causing them to be confused with the brown grizzly.
If you spot a bear feeding beside the road, chances are it’s a black bear. These are the most common of all large mammals in British Columbia, estimated to number around 120,000, with the highest concentrations on Vancouver Island  and the Queen Charlotte Islands . Their weight varies considerably (the larger ones are found in coastal areas), but males average 150 kilograms (330 pounds), females 100 kilograms (220 pounds). Their diet is omnivorous, consisting primarily of grasses and berries but supplemented by small mammals. They are not true hibernators, but in winter they can sleep for up to a month at a time before changing position. Young are born in late winter, while the mother is still asleep.
British Columbia’s estimated 10,000 grizzlies are widespread in all mainland areas of the province but are only occasionally seen by casual observers. Most sightings occur along coastal areas (where they are generally called brown bears) during salmon runs (the Khutzeymateen , near Prince Rupert , is world-renowned as a grizzly viewing spot) and in spring and fall in alpine and subalpine zones. The bears’ color ranges from light brown to almost black, with dark tan being the most common. On average, males weigh 250–350 kilograms (550–770 pounds). The bears eat small- and medium-sized mammals, and salmon and berries in fall. Like black bears, they sleep through most of the winter. When they emerge in early spring, the bears scavenge carcasses of animals that succumbed to the winter until the new spring vegetation becomes sufficiently plentiful.
Whale-watching has gained great popularity off the BC coast in recent years. Most towns along the Vancouver Island  coast offer trips out in various watercraft, many staying in sheltered waters where the whales are resting on migratory routes between Mexico and Alaska.
Once nearly extinct, today an estimated 20,000 gray whales swim the length of the BC coast twice annually between Baja Mexico and the Bering Sea. The spring migration (March–April) is close to the shore, with whales stopping to rest and feed in places such as Clayoquot Sound and the Queen Charlotte Islands .
Orcas, best known as killer whales, are the largest member of the dolphin family. Adult males can reach 10 meters (32.8 feet) in length and up to 10 tons in weight, but their most distinctive feature is a dorsal fin that protrudes more than 1.5 meters (five feet) from the back. Orcas are widespread in oceans around the world, but especially common along the BC coast, including Robson Bight, the world’s only sanctuary established especially for the protection of the species. Three distinct populations live in BC waters: resident orcas feed primarily on salmon and travel in pods of up to 50; transients travel by themselves or in very small groups, feeding on marine mammals such as seals and whales; and offshore orcas live in the open ocean, traveling in pods and feeding only on fish. In total, they number around 500, with around 300 residents living in 15 pods.
Local waters are home to an abundance of other marine mammals. Porpoises, dolphins, and humpback whales frolic in coastal waters, and colonies of seals and sea lions can be viewed by boat or kayak.
Mule deer and white-tailed deer are similar in size and appearance. Their color varies with the season but is generally light brown in summer, turning dirty gray in winter. While both species are considerably smaller than elk, the mule deer is a little stockier than the white-tailed deer. The mule deer has a white rump, a white tail with a dark tip, and large mule-like ears. It inhabits open forests along valley floors. The white-tailed deer’s tail is dark on top, but when the animal runs, it holds its tail erect, revealing an all-white underside. White-tailed are common along valleys throughout British Columbia  but especially prevalent on Vancouver Island . Sitka deer, a subspecies, inhabit the Queen Charlotte Islands .
The giant of the deer family, the moose, is an awkward-looking mammal that appears to have been designed by a cartoonist. It has the largest antlers of any animal in the world, stands up to 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) at the shoulder, and weighs up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds). Its body is dark brown, and it has a prominent nose, long spindly legs, small eyes, big ears, and an odd flap of skin called a bell dangling beneath its chin. Apart from all that, it’s good-looking. Each spring the bull begins to grow palm-shaped antlers that by August will be fully grown. Moose are solitary animals, preferring marshy areas and weedy lakes, but they are known to wander to higher elevations searching out open spaces in summer. They forage in and around ponds on willows, aspen, birch, grasses, and all aquatic vegetation. They are most common in northern British Columbia.
The elk (also known as wapiti) has a tan body with a dark-brown neck, dark-brown legs, and a white rump. This second-largest member of the deer family weighs 250–450 kilograms (550–990 pounds) and stands 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) at the shoulder. Pockets of elk inhabit valleys in the east of the province, but the animals are not particularly common.
Small populations of woodland caribou are restricted to the far north of the province. You may see them feeding in open areas at higher elevations along the Alaska Highway. Native people named the animal caribou (hoof scraper) for the way in which they feed in winter, scraping away snow with their hooves. Caribou are smaller than elk and have a dark-brown coat with creamy patches on the neck and rump.
After being hunted to near extinction, wolf numbers have rebounded across the continent, including in British Columbia , where the vast wilderness is home to a widespread and stable population that numbers around 8,000 and is distributed across the province everywhere except the lower mainland and coastal islands. Wolves weigh up to 65 kilograms (145 pounds), stand a meter (3.3 feet) high at the shoulder, and resemble large huskies or German shepherds. Their color ranges from snow white to brown or black; those in British Columbia are most often shades of gray or brown. Unlike other predators, they are not solitary but are intriguing animals that adhere to a complex social order, living in packs of 5–10 animals and roaming over hundreds of kilometers in search of prey.
The coyote is often confused for a wolf, when in fact it is much smaller, weighing up to only 15 kilograms (33 pounds). It has a pointed nose and long bushy tail. Its coloring is a mottled mix of brown and gray, with lighter-colored legs and belly. The coyote is a skillful and crafty hunter preying mainly on rodents. They are common and widespread at lower elevations throughout British Columbia (often patrolling the edges of highways and crossing open meadows in low-lying valleys).
Cougars (also called mountain lions, Mexican lions, pumas, and catamounts) are relatively plentiful in British Columbia, especially on Vancouver Island , where it is estimated the population numbers around 500. Adult males can grow to over two meters (6.5 feet) in length and weigh up to 90 kilograms (200 pounds). The fur generally ranges in color from light brown to a reddish-tinged gray, but occasionally black cougars are reported. Their athletic prowess puts Olympians to shame. They can spring forward more than eight meters (26 feet) from a standstill, leap four meters (13 feet) into the air, and safely jump from a height of 20 meters (66 feet). These solitary animals are versatile hunters whose acute vision takes in a peripheral span in excess of 200 degrees.
The elusive lynx is identifiable by its pointy black ear tufts and an oversized tabby cat appearance. The animal has broad, padded paws that distribute its weight, allowing it to “float” on the surface of snow. It weighs up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds) but appears much larger because of its coat of long, thick fur. The lynx, uncommon but widespread throughout the interior, is a solitary creature that prefers the cover of subalpine forests, feeding mostly at night on snowshoe hares and other small mammals.
Dall’s sheep (also known as Rocky Mountain or bighorn sheep) are one of the most distinctive mammals of Canada. Easily recognized by their impressive horns, they are often seen grazing on grassy mountain slopes or at salt licks beside the road. The color of their coat varies with the season; in summer it’s a brownish gray with a cream-colored belly and rump, turning lighter in winter. Bighorn sheep are particularly tolerant of humans and often approach parked vehicles; although they are not especially dangerous, you should not approach or feed them (as with all mammals).
The remarkable rock-climbing ability of nimble mountain goats allows them to live high in the mountains, retreating to rocky ledges or near-vertical slopes when threatened by predators.
One of the animal kingdom’s most industrious mammals is the beaver. Growing to a length of 50 centimeters (20 inches) and tipping the scales at around 20 kilograms (44 pounds), it has a flat, rudderlike tail and webbed back feet that enable it to swim at speeds up to 10 kph (6.2 mph). The exploration of western Canada  can be directly attributed to the beaver, whose pelt was in high demand in fashion-conscious Europe in the early 1800s. The beaver was never entirely wiped out from the mountains, and today the animals inhabit almost any forested valley with flowing water. Beavers build their dam walls and lodges of twigs, branches, sticks of felled trees, and mud. They eat the bark and smaller twigs of deciduous plants and store branches underwater, near the lodge, as a winter food supply.
Several species of squirrel are common in British Columbia , including the golden-mantled ground, Columbian, and red squirrels. Marmots are common and widespread, with various species living in different habitats. They are stocky creatures, weighing 4–9 kilograms (9–20 pounds). The porcupine, a small, squat animal, is easily recognized by its thick coat of quills. It eats roots and leaves but is also known for being destructive around wooden buildings and vehicle tires.