Bear attacks: what you should know

Watch above: A Suncor employee was killed by a bear while working near Fort McMurray Wednesday. Kendra Slugoski takes a closer look at the investigation and what kind of protection is in place for workers.

EDMONTON – How common are black bear attacks? And what should you do if you ever encounter a bear in the wilderness?

Those are just a couple of the questions that have been raised after an oilsands worker was killed by a black bear north of Fort McMurray Wednesday.

The investigating wildlife officer says the bear, that was killed after it attacked the woman, was a very large male bear. There was reportedly no open food in the area, and the garbage bin was sealed.

READ MORE: New details emerging about Suncor worker killed by bear

Bear expert Stephen Herrero, an environmental science professor at the University of Calgary, says bears have been known to be attracted to the smells of petroleum products.

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But according to the investigating wildlife officer, the attack seems to have been predatory.

Here are some answers to other questions you may be wondering:

How common are black bear attacks?

Herrero says that of the 100 years of data relating to black bears that he has analyzed, there were about 63 different instances during that time period of bears attacking and killing people.

“Each year in North America, one or two people are killed by black bears. There’s almost a million black bears in North America,” he said.

“They’re such rare events. but they do occur. So it’s just a matter of when or where.”

Are male or female black bears more likely to attack?

While you may think female bears protecting their cubs are more likely to attack, Herrero says that’s not what his research has shown.

He explains that in those situations, a mother bear concerned for her young would likely warn you if she felt threatened. That might including blowing, swatting the ground, or baring her teeth.

“A bear that might be out to eat you is focused on you and approaches you slowly, fixates on you, and then – at the last minute – usually silently goes right in,” Herrero explained.

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He adds that 90 per cent of fatal attacks are predatory, rather than defensive.

What should you do if you ever encounter a bear in the wild?

Don’t play dead. Instead:

  • Carry bear spray. Herrero compares going out into bear country without bear spray to driving without wearing your seatbelt.
  • Fight back. “So shouting, grabbing rocks, using bear spray, firearms, knives, sticks – any weapon you can come up with.”

Alberta Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) says it has no recollection of any sort of attack in recent history by either black bears or grizzlies on workers.

With more people working in the wilderness, though, Herrero believes we might see more of them in the future.

OHS is currently looking into Suncor’s safety training. The company, along with Syncrude and Shell – which all operate in the area where Wednesday’s bear attack occurred – say wildlife training is part of the job.

Shell also does specific bear awareness training, telling staff what to look for at remote sites.

“We try to let them know they’re in an environment where they have to be alert,” said Sarah Laughton, from Shell Canada’s Environmental Department.

“They need to be aware we’re sharing this land…with the bears and animals out there.”

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With files from Kendra Slugoski and Bindu Suri, Global News