Black Bear Aware

Trent Ernst, Editor


Conventional wisdom states that Grizzly Bears are the most dangerous of Canada’s three bear species. While polar bears are far more aggressive, they inhabit only a fraction of the landscape, and interaction between polar bears and humans are far less common.

But Grizzlies? Grizzlies are big, bad, and, while they are not found across the country, they are quite common around here.

But last week’s attack in Mackenzie underscores a little known fact in the annals of bear research: fatal black bear attacks are nearly as common as fatal grizzly bear attacks.

This, according to Doctor Stephen Herrero, a researcher from the University of Calgary and one of the leading experts on bear/human interaction.

According to a study, released in 2011, black bears have been responsible for 63 documented deaths between 1900 and 2009 across North America.

Over the same time period Grizzly were responsible for 70 deaths.

Herrero says fatal encounters with black bears have been exceedingly rare during the last century, but have been on the rise since the 1960s.

“Over 85% of fatal black bear attacks have occurred since 1960,” says Herrero. “Are bears changing their behavior or are humans? The only strong correlation we find is increases in human population. There’s almost a perfect linear relationship between the number of fatal bear attacks and the human population. As there are more and more people both recreationally and commercially in the wood, they tend to run into black bears.”

He says that, despite the large population of bears in the lower 48 states, most of the incidents are in Canada and Alaska. He posits that this might be
caused by
bears encountering humans at a younger age in the lower 48 and learning to avoid them early.

Another possible solution? A shorter feeding season leads the bears to be bolder. “Each year there are millions of interactions between people and black bears with no injuries to people. So while the risk is low, it does exist,” says Herrero.

His findings overturn the classic thinking that a mother black bear with cubs is the most dangerous kind of black bear encounter.

Instead, lone male black bears hunting people as a potential source of food are a greater cause of deadly maulings and related predatory attempts, accounting for 88 percent of the cases studied, while mother bears were responsible for only eight percent of fatal attacks.

Herrero notes sows will huff loudly, swat the ground and sometimes charge when protecting their young, but almost never to the point of making contact with a person.

Herrero says there are some commonalities between these attacks which people can use to recognize black bears exhibiting predatory behaviors. “The bears that occasionally kill people do it very stealthily, much like you would expect a predator to attack,” he says. “They will get close to a person, then charge, usually without making any noise. Most people haven’t seen this sort of behavior, because it is very rare. We have perhaps 750,000 to 800,000 black bears in North America. The fact they kill only two people a year is a testimony to how benign they are for the most part.”

He compares this to the 30 people who are killed annually by dogs.

Herrero says that people travelling by themselves or with only one companion are the most frequent victims of these type of attacks, accounting for 90 percent of these attacks. In order to reduce the danger, people should travel in groups.

He says that injured or sick bears accounted for a higher than normal number of bears involved in these attacks.

In a study of recent black bears attacks, both lethal and nonlethal, Herrero and Hank Hristienko, a biologist with the Manitoba Provincial Government, found 92 attacks across Canada and the U.S. from 2010 to 2013. The number of attacks annually climbed from 19 in 2010 to 32 in 2013.

The North American black bear population is estimated at 850,000 to 950,000. The population has been growing in numbers and expanding its range, largely as a result of conservation efforts and because forested bear habitat has expanded.

Herrero says that people should be cautious, and people should treat bears with respect, but not with the fear and panic that many people approach bears with. “All this emphasis on bear attacks shouldn’t in any way detract from the fact that black bears are a lovely species to get along with. They’re generally very safe to be around. Much safer to be around than dogs, in terms of total number of attacks. Much safer than snakes and bees. They’re fascinating to watch and to understand their behavior. The fact that the odd one is involved in a serious attack on a human is unfortunate, but it is something we can manage.”

Avoiding Dangerous Encounters with Bears

There are some simple precautions you must take to prevent the food-conditioning of bears and avoid dangerous bear encounters, from the BC Parks website.

Never feed or approach bears or other wildlife.

Reduce or eliminate odours that attract bears. At the campground, store food in air-tight containers in your RV or car trunk.

Bear caches must be used if they are available at the park.

Pack out all your garbage. Store garbage with your food, out of reach of bears. Do not bury garbage or throw it into pit toilets. Only paper and wood may be burned: plastics, tinfoil, and food items do not burn completely and the remains will attract bears (besides creating an unsightly mess). Storing garbage in bear-proof containers is recommended.

Cook and eat well away from your tent.

Clean up immediately and thoroughly. Never leave cooking utensils, coolers, grease or dish water lying around. Dispose of dish water by straining it and then throwing it into a gray water pit or pit toilet. Solids should be packed out with the garbage.

The odours of cosmetics, toothpaste and insect repellent can attract bears. These should be stored out of reach with your food and garbage, never in your tent. Leave strongly perfumed items at home.

Obey all closures and warnings.

When Fishing

Fish smells are a strong attractant for bears.

Do not store food or bait in your tent and keep your campsite clean.

Give bears plenty of room. Leave your fishing spot if a bear is in the river and give them plenty of space. If approached by a bear, reel in, and leave the area. Cut your line if playing a fish. You may return to your fishing spot when it is safe to do so.

Bleed and clean your catch in the stream, not at your campsite, and throw offal into deep or fast moving water.

Do not handle roe used for bait on picnic tables. Wash your hands afterwards, do not wipe on clothing.

Do not build fires or cook by the river’s edge.

While staying in Bear Country

Always keep children nearby and in sight.

Always sleep in a tent – not under the stars.

Obey all park regulations, stay on designated trails and comply with posted warnings.

Hike portages and trails as a group. Solo hiking is not advised — you reduce the risk of an attack by traveling together as a group. Do not let children wander.

Keep pets leashed. If possible, keep pets at home. Free-running pets can anger a bear and provoke an attack.

Reduce the chance of surprising a bear

Always check ahead for bears in the distance. If one is spotted, make a wide detour and leave the area immediately.

Make warning noises and loud sounds.

Watch for bear signs: tracks, droppings, overturned rocks, rotten trees torn apart, clawed, bitten or rubbed trees, bear trails, fresh diggings or trampled vegetation.

Stay clear of dead wildlife

Take note of signs that may indicate carrion – such as circling crows or ravens, or the smell of rotting meat.

Carcasses attract bears. Leave the area immediately!

Report the location of dead wildlife to Park staff or Conservation Officer.

If you have an encounter with a bear, please leave the area immediately and report it to park staff as soon as possible.

Bear pepper sprays have been effective in deterring some bear attacks. However, do not use them as a substitute for safe practices in bear country. Avoidance is still your best bet.

Bear Facts

Bears are as fast as racehorses, on the flats, uphill or downhill

Bears are strong swimmers.

Bears have good eyesight, good hearing, and an acute sense of smell.

All black bears and young grizzlies are agile tree climbers; mature grizzlies are poor climbers, but they have a reach up to 4 metres.

If a bear is standing up it is usually trying to identify you. Talk softly so it knows what you are. Move away, keeping it in view. Do not make direct eye contact.

How to Identify a Bear

Identifying bears is important if you are ever approached by one.

Black Bear (Ursus americanus Pallas)

Colour: Varies. Black, brown, cinnamon or blond, often with a white patch on the chest or at the throat.

Height: Approximately 90 cm at the shoulder.

Weight: 57 kg to more than 270 kg. Females are usually smaller than males.

Characteristics: Straight face profile; short, curved claws; barely noticeable shoulder hump

Habitat: Prefers forested areas with low-growing plants and berry-producing shrubs (e.g. small forest openings, stream or lake edges, open forest).

Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis Ord)

Colour: Varies. Black (rare), brown or blond. Fur often white-tipped or “grizzled”.Light-coloured patches may occur around neck, shoulders and on rear flanks.

Height: Slightly above one metre at shoulder; 1.8 to 2.0 metres when erect.

Weight: 200 kg to more than 450 kg. Females are usually smaller than males.

Characteristics: Dished or concave face long; curved claws; prominent shoulder hump

Habitat: Semi-open spaces preferred. High country in late summer and early fall; valley bottoms late fall and spring.

What to do if you see a Bear

If It Does Not Approach

If spotted in the distance, do not approach the bear. Make a wide detour or leave the area immediately. Report your sighting to Park Staff at the first opportunity.

If you are at close range, do not approach the bear. Remain calm, keep it in view. Avoid direct eye contact. Move away without running. Report the sighting to Park Staff.

If the Bear Approaches

If the bear is standing up, it is usually trying to identify you. Talk softly so it knows what you are. If it is snapping its jaws, lowering its head, flattening its ears, growling or making ‘woofing’ signs, it is displaying aggression.

Do not run unless you are very close to a secure place. Move away, keeping it in view. Avoid direct eye contact. Dropping your pack or an object may distract it to give you more time. If it is a grizzly, consider climbing a tree.

What to do if a Bear Attacks

Your response depends on the species and whether the bear is being defensive or offensive. Bears sometimes bluff their way out of a confrontation by charging then turning away at the last moment. Generally, the response is to do nothing to threaten or further arouse the bear. While fighting back usually increases the intensity of an attack, it may cause the bear to leave.

Every encounter is unique and the following are offered as guidelines only to deal with an unpredictable animal and potentially complex situations.

Grizzly Attacks From Surprise (defensive)

Do nothing to threaten or further arouse the bear.

Play dead. Assume the ‘cannonball position’ with hands clasped behind neck and face buried in knees.

Do not move until the bear leaves the area. Such attacks seldom last beyond a few minutes.

Black Bear Attacks From Surprise (defensive)

Playing dead is not appropriate. Try to retreat from the attack.

Grizzly or Black Bear Attacks Offensively (including stalking or when you are sleeping)

Do not play dead. Try to escape to a secure place (car or building) or climb a tree unless it is a black bear. If you have no other option, try to intimidate the bear with deterrents or weapons such as tree branches or rocks.

Grizzly or Black Bear Attacking For Your Food

Abandon the food. Leave the area.

Do not deal with a problem bear unless it is an emergency.