From the moment you wake up, you face a series of risks throughout your day. Whether it's your shower / bath time, your walk down the stairs to breakfast, crossing the street, your drive into work or hiking out in the forest; there is risk involved. And no matter how hard we try, we can never fully eliminate risk. The best we can do is minimize our risks to an acceptable level through our actions. Many people don't even think about risk in their daily lives. While other people let it paralyze them with fear, too afraid to ever do anything. But risk is not a bad thing. It is simply the likelihood of an outcome. And there are simple steps you can take to minimize your risk. Why am I talking about risk in an article titled "Bear and Cougar Awareness"? Because encounters with wildlife are a risk you must consider when you decide to get outside and enjoy all the splendor that Mother Nature has to offer! We can minimize the probability of a wildlife encounter resulting in injuries through a few simple steps.
Educate, plan, prepare and avoid.
The key trick is to gain some knowledge on the subject which leads to a better understanding of the risk so we can act in a way that minimizes our chance of injury.
Thankfully, Canada is blessed with an abundance of wildlife and protected areas that wildlife can call home. I have been working in remote wilderness areas and hiking throughout Canada for more than 30 years now and only had to take action to avoid a bear encounter 15 times and a cougar encounter one time. These numbers likely seem high to you but please remember I often spend half of my year in the wilderness and many times I am intentionally looking for bears and cougars. Most people will never encounter a bear or cougar while out hiking in their entire lifetime! Let's focus on bears first and look a little closer at the risk involved with bears.
If you plan to get outside and enjoy some hiking, you might be in an area where there are black bears, grizzlies or both. Black bears are prevalent across Canada (and the United States of America), while grizzly bears are found in Western Canada. How do you avoid an encounter with a bear and keep yourself safe? The first step is to understand bears and their behaviour. Bears are amazing creatures and are very wary of humans; they don't want to be around you. Bears are very focused on eating and trying to gain weight for their winter hibernation. Their natural diet is 85 to 90% plants and berries and only about 10 to 15% insects and mammals. Bears spend between four to six months in their dens hibernating during the winter. Did you know that bears are nocturnal and generally hide during the day? They are most active at dawn and dusk. Bears also have an incredible sense of smell and are commonly thought to have the keenest sense of smell in the animal kingdom. They are likely to smell you and move away before you ever even notice there was a bear nearby. Here's another fun fact. Black bears and most grizzlies can climb trees so don't count on that as your escape route. Often when humans encounter bears, the bears are too busy eating to care. But the presence of humans will cause a bear stress. Bears exhibit their stress through a few different means; open mouth, snorting, grunting, chomping at its mouth or bluff charges. These are all signs that you should get out of the area immediately and get away from the bear.
Because of these bear behaviours, chances are pretty low that you will ever encounter one while out hiking. And the number of fatalities due to bear encounters are very low. Since 2010, there have been 17 people killed by grizzly bear attacks and eight people killed by black bears in North America and most of these attacks were in very remote areas. Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fatal_bear_attacks_in_North_America.
The map below gives you an idea of the locations for fatal bear attacks across North America from 2000 to 2018.
I said your chances are low, but that doesn't mean it isn't possible. There are some easy steps you can take when you are out hiking that will minimize the risk even further which I will summarize below. Your best approach is to avoid an encounter completely. The Government of Alberta has put this information into a handy colouring and activity book that you can use to educate your children and make them BearSmart! Check it out at https://open.alberta.ca/publications/9780778597858.
Following the six BearSmart rules will help you avoid a bear encounter:
Learn About Bears
The more you understand the bear and it's behaviour, the more prepared you will be to react appropriately when you do encounter one. And your actions will mean the difference between an amazing, peaceful encounter or a possible attack. The Alberta BearSmart program provides some great examples (with pictures) of different bear behavior that will help you better understand what a bear is trying to say to you. Check out the links to the BearSmart program in the References below along with a great bear safety video available on YouTube. Besides, bears are super cool creatures, so learning about them can be fun!
Never Get Close to a Bear
Be alert and watch for signs of bears, like scat on the trail or bear tracks. If you do see a bear, move slowly away from them, either in the direction that you came or get off the trail and let them pass. Bears don't like to bushwhack and will look for an easy walking trail which is likely where you are. Keep your eye on the bear but avoid direct eye contact with them. Do not turn your back on the bear. And never get near cubs or between a mother bear and her cubs. She is just as protective of her children as you are! Be sure to carry bear spray and know how to use it just in case you can't avoid getting close to the bear.
Never Feed Bears
"A fed bear is a dead bear". When a bear gets food from humans it will become habituated and come back for more easy pickings. Never feed a bear directly. And while you are out there, be considerate to the wildlife and other hikers and avoid littering. Everyone wants to enjoy nature unspoiled. You should always follow the leave no trace principles; take only memories and leave only footprints.
Don't Surprise a Bear
Make some noise! Bear bells are not loud enough, instead try to shout every once in a while or bring a whistle along. You don't need to be loud every step of the way but do be loud whenever you are near running water, when the wind is blowing in your face (which means the bear might not smell you coming) or when in dense forest where your sound might be drowned out enough that the bear can't hear you. Make this a fun activity for the kids by having a sing-a-long with your group or playing games that involve shouting out answers. Travel in groups (4 or more are the safest) and keep children in between the adults. Make sure you stick together and don't get spread out.
Don't Invite Bears Over
Bears need to eat a lot (up to 25,000 calories per day) and anytime they can find an easy food source, they will come back to it frequently. And remember their keen sense of smell? They are curious and want to check everything out that might be a possible food source. Be diligent with your garbage and make sure you throw it away in a bear proof bin or lock it inside a building. Also, make sure that you have pets on a leash or leave your pet at home. Dogs have been known to make bear encounters worse.
Report Bad Behaviour
If you do see a bear around garbage or hanging near people, report it to the Fish and Wildlife Officer in the area or the Park Warden.
But what if after all these precautions you do encounter a bear? What should you do?
- Stay calm and stay close together in a group. Do not run!
- Talk to the bear in a calm voice. Call out "Hey bear, ho bear, I'm just moving out of the way now."
- Prepare your bear spray. Remove the canister from the holster and hold it with both hands. Make sure you evaluate the wind conditions and rotate your body so the wind is at your back if possible. You certainly don't want to spray yourself.
- Back up slowly. Give the bear some space. Leave the area either the way you came or by moving off the trail without turning your back to the bear.
- Do not stare directly into its eyes. That can be seen as a sign of aggression.
- Do not follow the bear. Go in a different direction or leave in the direction you came.
And what if after all this the bear still won't go away?
- Spray the bear with bear spray; aim low in front of the bear at its eyes, nose and mouth.
- If the bear spray doesn't work or you don't have bear spray and the bear charges you, try playing dead. Roll on your stomach, cover the back of your neck, remain still. If they don't lose interest and leave, then you will need to fight back. Focus your strikes on the eyes, face and nose of the bear.
Cougars are also prevalent in Western Canada. However, cougars are far more wary of humans than bears and will usually not make their presence known to humans in the wild. Cougars will rarely attack humans and are not usually attracted to human food or garbage. Cougars are most active at dusk, night and dawn and usually use vegetation as cover when they are stalking prey. Dogs and smaller children are most at risk for cougar attacks. If you follow the BearSmart habits above, you will minimize your risks of a cougar attack as well. Now get outside and stay safe!
Darryl MacDonald is a professional wildlife photographer and videographer with over 25 years in the industry. He runs a small, Calgary based company called Clear Blue Photo but his work takes him all over the world. Darryl leverages his years growing up in the Canadian Rockies, love of nature, background as a wildfire fighter, scuba diving instructor and registered EMT, to leave no trace when he is out and about. He takes great pride in utilizing these skills and knowledge to help keep himself, his expedition teammates and the wildlife safe and happy.