In a tragic and rare incident, a grizzly bear attack claimed the lives of a Canadian couple and their dog in Banff National Park late last week, shedding light on the importance of staying vigilant when exploring the wilderness.
Bear sightings increase every fall as they become more active in searching for food ahead of hibernating, meaning the chances of encountering these massive animals while going for a hike or camping rise significantly.
“In the fall bears are experiencing hyperphagia, which means they’re hungry all the time. They want to put on body fat to hibernate for the next six months or so, and they’re looking for food and need to travel more,” said Mike McIntosh, founder and president of Bear With Us, an Ontario-based bear sanctuary.
“They’re looking to put on weight. That also makes them more likely to take advantage of human attractants such as birdseed, our food and garbage, or poorly-stored human food.”
Grizzly bear attacks are relatively rare, explained McIntosh, but when they do occur, they are often driven by self-defence instincts, like the protection of a food source or their cubs. But these attacks are seldom “just a full-out attack for no reason at all,” he said.
Parks Canada is still investigating what happened during the grizzly attack that killed two people and their dog Friday evening. The federal department on Tuesday said the couple had followed the right protocols, such as carrying bear spray and hanging their food properly at their campsite.
The incident marks the first deadly attack reported in Banff National Park in decades.
Nick de Ruyter is the WildSmart program director at the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley in Canmore, Alta. He understands that people may be apprehensive to hit the trails or go camping after hearing the tragic news but stresses the rarity of this incident.
“Generally (bears) want nothing to do with us. They just want to avoid us and don’t care about us,” he said.
“But they are wild animals, they are unpredictable. And as we just saw with this attack, we don’t know all the details, but it can happen and people just need to be aware of that. I really don’t think people need to be worried or scared to go in the outdoors. They just need to be prepared.”
What happened with the bear attack in Banff?
The couple and their dog were on a backcountry camping trip in Banff National Park last week, according to Parks Canada, adding that they had all the proper permits for the area.
Parks Canada said dispatchers received an alert Friday evening about a bear attack west of Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, about 200 kilometres northwest of Calgary.
When a response team arrived, they found two people dead. Two cans of bear spray were also found at the scene.
The response team then encountered a grizzly bear that displayed aggressive behaviour and charged toward them, Parks Canada said.
“This is why there was no choice but to shoot and kill the bear on-site,” a spokesperson said in a statement on Tuesday.
A necropsy was then completed on the bear, and it was determined to be a non-lactating female estimated to be more than 25 years old and in fair body condition.
“Her teeth were in poor condition and (she) had less than normal body fat for this time of year,” the statement read.
The statement added that DNA samples from the bear confirmed it was responsible for the attack, and it was not collared, tagged or previously known to wildlife staff in the park.
The statement did not say whether the dog had been on a leash or whether the bear spray had been deployed. Parks Canada notes on its website that off-leash dogs can provoke defensive behaviour in bears, and bear spray can be effective with some bears when used properly.
How to stay bear safe
If going on a hike or camping in an area with bears, McIntosh said the most effective safety strategy is talking — loudly.
“Bells and all these things they sell are basically ineffective. But talking, singing, is the most effective way to let the bear know a human being is approaching,” he said. “And very likely the human will never know there was a bear nearby.”
The more people there are in a group walking, the more likely the bear will stay away, he added.
People should also watch for fresh bear signs, such as tracks, droppings or a large dead animal, as these can all be signals that a bear has been in the area. If you do see this, he said, you should leave the area immediately.
Another important deterrent is always carrying bear spray, explained de Ruyter.
“Carry that bear spray in an easily accessible location, don’t have it in your backpack,” he said. “Have it somewhere on your hip, on your chest.”
de Ruyter also recommended investing in a “scat bear spray belt” that allows you to easily access it if you come across a bear.
If you do come across a bear while hiking or camping, both experts recommend to try and stay calm. Running can provoke the bear to give chase, as they are faster runners, and attempting to climb a tree may result in the bear following you.
Stop walking and talk to the bear in a calm voice, de Ruyter said, adding the key is not to make the animal feel threatened.
“It doesn’t matter what you say or what language you speak, just let it know that you’re a human and that you’re not a threat,” he said.
“If that bear then charges at us, use that bear spray.”
Dogs and bear attacks
Dogs can provoke defensive behaviour in bears, warned McIntosh.
“Dogs, unfortunately, are a factor in most bear attacks. Even though bear attacks are rare…dogs are very commonly involved,” he said.
This is because most bears see dogs as a threat as they closely resemble wolves.
“Bears in general, especially cubs and small bears, have also been threatened through thousands of years by wolves. And there’s not much difference in dogs,” he said.
“When a bear comes across a dog, it’s a negative response. And usually, if the dog harasses a bear, the bear will respond by chasing it.”
The best advice when hiking or camping with a dog is to keep it on a leash, he said, adding, “ideally leave the dogs at home.”
— with files from Reuters and the Canadian Press
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