In light of a fatal bear attack in Banff National Park almost two weeks ago, Alberta’s conservation service is reminding us to be bear smart when out in the great outdoors this fall and winter.
While encounters with bears are very rare, Sgt. Denis Haché with the Pincher Creek office adds that deaths, such as those of a couple and their dog in the Rockies Sept. 29, are even more uncommon.
“I guess the best advice I could give is to be prepared, planning your trip going into bear country,” he says. “There are a lot of things you can do in advance.”
Bear spray education
The first thing Haché suggests is proper bear spray training: “Get your bear spray and know how to use it. Also know how to carry it so it’s available if you need it.”
Bear spray is like a fire extinguisher — if not done right, it can lead to an empty canister with no result.
Another aspect, and one many might not consider, is how to safely transport the canister.
“You want to be careful about where you put it in your car,” Haché says. “There’s containers that you can purchase that have the foam insert to protect it, but you want to put that as far away as you can from those inside the vehicle.”
Know before you go
When planning an outing, it’s important to know where you’re going — not just the location, but the potential dangers.
“You can access information on the provincial parks and protected areas through the Alberta Parks website … where there might be advisories, warnings, or even closures as a result of bear activity,” Haché suggests.
The time of year also needs to be considered too. Is it berry season? Castle Mountain’s Huckleberry Festival is one example he used.
“You’re going right into their domain. Have we stumbled upon a food source, like a carcass? Are there signs of bear activity, like tracks, muddy sections, logs that are torn up, dug-up roots or holes in the ground … scat.”
These are important things to watch out for.
Make noise and avoid surprises
Conservation officials also recommend you make lots of noise when you’re out walking in the backcountry to let animals know you’re coming.
“Whistle, calling out, singing. I usually always go ‘Day-o,’ ” Haché says light-heartedly, but it works for him.
“That way they can hear me, especially when you get into close quarters with lots of shrubs, lots of trees, where you can’t see down the trail very far.”
The same holds true for e-bikes. Making little or no noise, riders can go into steeper and more isolated terrain, where bears are usually found.
He believes going in groups is probably still the best solution. “They say that a group of six hikers is so much less likely to encounter a bear. You’re going to naturally be making noise and they’ll become aware of your presence and move off the trail.”
Keep your dog(s) close to you
While not discouraging taking dogs with you on a hike or if you’re wilderness camping, Haché has some caveats.
“Dogs that are untrained or unfamiliar with the wildlife in these parts, they might be more nervous or you might not be able to predict how they will react,” he says. “So, if they’re off-leash, they might go off after a scent ahead of you.”
While they might get a sense [or scent] that there’s something ahead, it’s better to have them close by to see their behaviour of danger, he believes. That way, if the dog aggravates or surprises a bear, it’s not running back to you, bringing with it a charging bear.
Generally, this can be avoided in provincial parks, where dogs are required to be leashed at all times.
Being alert to one’s surroundings is always important, but particularly so in the fall as bears are preparing for winter hibernation. Remember to look up, as well as around you, when enjoying the backcountry and even creek paths, and make noise to lessen the chance of a surprise encounter. This bear was about 30 feet up, another was tucked into the branches midway up the tree and a third was at the base. You never know when you’ll see three in a tree!
Photo by Jaiden Panchyshyn
What to do if you encounter a bear
Depending on the circumstances, Haché offers different suggestions, but all are important to know.
“The first thing … is the bear even aware of your presence? Sometimes you spot them before they spot you. Then give it a lot of space. Back away. If you’re really close, then back away the way you came. Give them a wide berth and a lot of respect.”
By doing that, conservation officers feel you’re less likely to come between a mama bear and her cubs or a food source. You want to remain calm, as hard as that might be at the time and, for obvious reasons, you also never want to turn your back.
There is no playbook for how a bear will react when it sees a human, whether it’s a black bear or a grizzly.
“There’s all kinds of behaviour that you can observe,” Haché says. “It might bluff charge. Be very agitated, moving its head back and forth. Snapping the jaws so you’re hearing the clicking of the teeth, which can be an impressive signal. Vocalization, like a barking or growling sound.”
Although the bear may not have any intention to attack, slowly backing away from it, at this point, is the best option, but be ready to deploy your bear spray if the situation changes, experts say.
Suggestions if the bear decides to attack
While making yourself large and fighting back is recommended with some animals, Haché says it really depends on the circumstances with a charging bear.
When it’s a defensive attack, for example, where cubs or a food source are at play, be passive.
“Don’t try to be aggressive. Protect yourself. Lie down and cover your head, protect your neck. You don’t want to agitate the bear even more. Don’t fight back. Show them, you’re not a threat.”
Attacks, as it turns out, are divided into two categories by conservation officers — defensive and the more serious, aggressive.
“That’s a situation where a person is being followed or stalked and can happen over a longer period of time,” Haché says. “Where it’s a predatory situation, you’re being charged, there’s contact being made … and the bear won’t let you out of the area.”
There, he advises the opposite.
“You want to tell that bear I’m not an easy prey. Use whatever is at hand … rocks, sticks, bear spray, and you stand your ground — you defend yourself as you try to leave the area.”
While he hopes no one will ever face that scenario, Haché believes being educated and prepared in what to do in that situation is key.
“If you’re panicking, if you’re unaware., if you’re surprised, to be able to think that through, it’s going to be a lot more difficult,” he says. “So, again, preparation is important.”
The provincial government has a website to help Albertans be “bear smart.”
Crowsnest BearSmart Association is another resource that provides information and courses on proper use of bear spray.