Do Bears Like the Smell of Weed: An Analysis
It's a cloudy August day, the towering wall of Mount Yamnuska engulfed by the cool, impenetrable mist. You are pensively walking through the forest, and up along the expansive rocky stretches of trail. In your left-hand backpack pocket lies a half-smoked joint. Nuken, they call it - an indica hybrid you know all too well. You pull out your lighter and put the filter to your lips. Inhaling, you savor the peppery quality of the weed. It automatically lifts the weight of everything going on around you; you take the deepest breath you have taken all day. Mindfully, you travel deeper and deeper into the forest. You take another step - but wait, what was that? Whipping your head around, you carefully inspect each patch of darkness in the woods. Your mind jumps to 'worst-case-scenario' mode. Could it be a bear? A mountain lion? It could just as likely be a marmot or a squirrel, you tell yourself, recognizing the weed-induced paranoia kicking in. Despite the paranoia, you wonder if you will turn the next corner and run into your worst nightmare. You take a few more cautious steps, your brain in overdrive. Then you ask yourself: do bears like the smell of weed? Hiking Solo As an avid hiker, I face this obstacle each time I take on the challenge of trekking a mountain or traversing a ridge. Everyone says it, so I'll say it again - the best thing to do is hike with another person, or better yet, a group of people. As the Rocky Mountain Ramblers Association says, 'there have been no attacks on groups of 6 or more hikers' .
But sometimes hiking with a group can take away from nature's innate beauty. Sometimes you want to take a minute to gently graze the velvety moss, or lay your overheated body on a nearly-vertical slab of rock. Ergo, solo hiking has become one of my favorite fair-weather hobbies; it provides an opportunity to be mindful of both your internal state and external environment. It's great for:
Setting your own pace and finding a unique rhythm;
Enjoying the sound of the wind through the trees, or the more subdued sensation of the sun's warmth on your already sun-kissed forearms;
Reflecting on old experiences with the new knowledge you've obtained, or unearthing one of the novel ideas floating around in your head.
But the risks are always there; there's always a chance that you'll run into a tangible iteration of the Berenstein Bears. And if there's a chance to lessen the risk, it could be worth exploring. Monitoring the products you choose to consume while trekking through the woods is an easy enough task for a dedicated hiker. So, today I'm investigating whether smoking marijuana increases a solo hikers' chance of encountering wildlife.
When I initially decided to write this article, I thought there would be a considerable amount of research surrounding cannabis usage in the wilderness. Though there is research on the specifics of marijuana and its effects on domesticated animals, there are no specific conclusions on weed's role as an intoxicant in nature. So, let's take a look at some information and see if we can draw a few semi-solid conclusions together.
One of its first uses dating back approximately 6000 years, cannabis was originally cultivated for the production of paper, rope and string. Hui-Lin Li states,
'[Cannabis] was used extensively in making ropes and cordage, fish nets, fabrics of all kinds, and as raw material for making paper. As a food crop, the seed was one of the major grains of ancient China, the use of which gradually decreased until it was finally forgotten as a grain for human consumption. Oil extracted from the seed was used for frying food but had even more industrial applications. The fruits, leaves and roots were used in medicine in ancient times. The medicinal uses of the plant diminished in later ages. The plant was also used as a hallucinogenic drug.' 
In the same vein, Dr. Russo examines the different uses of cannabis around the world noting its ritual use in India (within Indian Ayurvedic medicine), its alleged anesthetic use in Tibet, and its later use in eighteenth century European medicine .
Marijuana (aka pot, mary jane, weed, grass, ganja, the devil's lettuce, etc.) can be broken down into two main components: THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). Tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive component within marijuana, is primarily responsible for producing that 'high' we feel when we smoke a joint. But, as Tracy Ferrell states, '[it] is also known to have many medicinal properties, including relief from pain, nausea, sleeplessness and anxiety' . Cannabidiol, the other key player in any well-rolled blunt, does not have psychoactive qualities — but does have a host of medicinal properties. These include, but are not limited to, anti-inflammatory, anti-psychotic and immuno-modulatory attributes. These two constituents lend to cannabis' versatility, allowing it to be used for recreational and medical purposes .
Another, less discussed, but very central component of weed are terpenes. Terpenes are bioactive compounds that are responsible for producing the distinctive scents of various plants, including lavender and pine scents . There are hundreds of terpenes in the natural world, but here are some well-known terpene categories to consider: Limonene (citrusy scents), Pinene (piney scents), Linalool (lavender scent) and Beta-caryophyllene (spicy and herby scents). According to clinical psychologist Dr. Breus, 'Most plants contain terpenes — there are about 20,000 different terpenes that are known to exist in the natural world. The cannabis plant contains about 200 terpenes' . Why is this important? Consider this: conifer wood, citrus fruits, eucalyptus, lavender, lemongrass, lillies, peppermint, rosemary, sage, violet (etc., etc.) are naturally occurring plants that have been shaped by their terpenes . There's a pretty good chance that, wherever you are in the world, at least one of these plants will occur naturally within your environment. And if they're common in an ecosystem, then it's safe to say that the wildlife within that ecosystem will recognize the scent — their behavior, however, is context-dependent. Now that we've examined the components of marijuana, let's move on to the second part of our equation: bears.
What about bears? Bears, according to the U.S. National Park Service, have a sense of smell that is about 7 times stronger than that of a bloodhound ! Throughout history, K-9's have uncovered critical evidence as a result of their superior sense of smell. Incidentally, bloodhounds played a crucial role in the 1876 William Fish murder case. Earning him the title of Blackburn's very own Sweeney Todd, Fish did the unthinkable and murdered a 7-year-old girl (I won't go into much detail here, but if you'd like to find out more about this intriguing case, check out Stephen Greenhalgh's novel, referenced ). This high-profile case meant investigators had to pull out all the stops, using bloodhounds to ultimately uncover evidence that led to his arrest . So, by that metric, bears would excel in criminal investigations; by the same metric, we can extrapolate that there's a strong probability bears can smell whatever strain of weed you're smoking.
Another important consideration regarding terpenes is the diet of Grizzly and Black bears. These curious creatures have a wide-ranging omnivorous diet because 'they inhabit such a broad geographic range in North America, and occupy so many types of woodlands, scrub forests, and swamps' [12, p. 31]. With an average weight ranging from 250 to 500 pounds, it's no surprise that bears feast on a wide array of animals. Deer, elk, caribou — these are just a few of the commonly known mammals that often fall prey. Aside from these larger prizes, bears eat everything, from earthworms and ants to newly-hatched birds, squirrels, and even wolves! More importantly though, let's take a look at the vegetarian components of their diets. Both Grizzly and Black bears consume a wide-variety of plants including: grass shoots, broad-leafed plants (such as alfalfa, dandelions, etc.), mushrooms, nuts, seeds, berries (wild cherries, blackberries, etc.), fruit produced by trees and lower-growing shrubs (apples, plums, etc.) and even fuzzy catkins from poplar trees [12, pp. 34-37]. As we know, all plants have specific terpenes — these can act as attractants or defendants. Terpeniod roles include, 'defense against herbivores and pathogens, and signals and rewards to beneficial organisms, such as pollinators and mycorrhiza .' Some of these attractants can be found in plants like dandelions, maple trees and milkweed; all commonly found in the Canadian back country. If bears are on the hunt for a foraged meal, they are just as likely to be drawn in by those broad-leafed dandelions, or delicately sweet maples surrounding them.
Now that we've got all the puzzle pieces it's time to put them together. We've explored the components of cannabis and their distinctive roles: Tetrahydrocannabinol with its psychoactive attributes; Cannabidiol with its immuno-modulatory attributes. And most importantly (for our purposes), terpenes — the key players in determining if bears will be attracted to your weed. We've also taken a look at bears: their diets, preferences, and superhuman scent-detecting abilities. So, what's the takeaway?
Well, if a bear can smell a dollop of toothpaste in your backpack, it can unquestionably smell your weed . Whether it serves as an attractant or not is still a bit hazy. But since favourable terpenes can overlap with other natural attractants, erring on the side of caution by eliminating all scents from your person could potentially decrease the chances of encountering wildlife.
Despite our best efforts, there's no way to truly eliminate hiking-related dangers. To that end, I suppose the real question here is: should we stop doing what we love just because there are risks involved?
That one's up to you.
B. St. John. Outdoor Safety Topic Bears and Other Wildlife. Rocky Mountain Ramblers Association, 2020. [Online] Available from: https://www.ramblers.ab.ca/Outdoortopics/bears. [Accessed 21 September, 2020].
H. Li. An Archaeological and Historical Account of Cannabis in China. Economic Botany, 1974, 28, pp. 437-448.
F. Grotenhermen, E.B. Russo. Cannabis and Cannabinoids: Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Therapeutic Potential. New York: The Haworth Press, 2002.
T. Ferrell. Migrating for Medical Marijuana: Pioneers in a New Frontier of Treatment. North Carolina: Toplight, 2019, pp. 37-38.
E. Jones, S. Vlachou. A Critical Review of the Role of the Cannabinoid Compounds ∆9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (∆9-THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD) and their Combination in Multiple Sclerosis Treatment. MDPI: Molecules, 2020, 25.
J. Johnson. What are terpenes? Medical News Today, 2020. [Online]. Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/what-are-terpenes. [Accessed 16 September, 2020].
M. Breus. Terpenes: They are Not Just in Marijuana and They Can Help with Sleep. The Sleep Doctor, 2019. [Online] Available from: https://thesleepdoctor.com/2019/12/03/terpenes-they-are-not-just-in-marijuana-and-they-can-help-with-sleep/?cn-reloaded=1. [Accessed 16 September, 2020].
E. Breitmaier. Terpenes: Flavors, Fragrances, Pharmaca, Pheromones. Germany: Wiley, 2006.
Yosemite National Park California. Bear Series, Part One: A Bear's Sense of Smell. National Park Service, 2014. [Online] Available from: https://www.nps.gov/yose/blogs/bear-series-part-one-a-bears-sense-of-smell.htm. [Accessed 7 October, 2020].
S. Greenhalgh. Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths in Blackburn & Hyndburn. United Kingdom: Wharncliffe Books, 2002.
S. Evans, K. Skinner. The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2000.
J. Ballard. Falcon Pocket Guide: Black Bears. United States: Morris Book Publishing, LLC., 2013.
E. Pichersky, R.A. Raguso. Why do plants produce so many terpenoid compounds? New Phytologist, 2018,  pp.692–702.
Ask A Bear: Can You Smell My Marijuana? Backpacker, 2017. [Online]. Available from: https://www.backpacker.com/stories/ask-a-bear-can-you-smell-my-marijuana. [Accessed 12 October, 2020]