Bear with us: Why are Canadians so bad at tracking wildlife encounters?

File - A black bear is pictured in a May 27, 2012 photo.
File - A black bear is pictured in a May 27, 2012 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

The good news: If the numbers can be trusted, human-bear encounters in Canada look like they’re going down in the short term, not up.

The bad news: The numbers cannot be trusted.

Over the course of multiple weeks, Global News sought out provincial data on human-bear encounters and the killing of bears by wildlife officials. The numbers we were able to glean were limited and incomplete at best, nonexistent at worst.

Provinces track encounters differently – they even define bear-human “occurrences” differently: British Columbia has the highest number of “occurences,” by far – six times Alberta’s, for example, in 2013 – but that’s likely because it tracks calls to conservation officers, not bear encounters themselves.

And policies and practices such as Ontario’s trap-and-relocate program (started in 2004 and discontinuedin 2011) change from year to year, artificially altering trendlines.

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READ MORE: Applications to carry handguns skyrocket in BC, Alberta – probably as protection against bears

That lack of reliable data is a problem if you’re a bear or a person who may ever come into contact with one.

“As conflicts between humans and black bears continue to increase accurate information becomes fundamental to informed human-bear conflict management,” reads a study co-authored by Canadian animal behaviour and ecology specialist Stephen Herrero, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

The paper, which tracked the number of fatal black bear attacks in North America from 1900 to 2009, concluded that most attacks happened in Canada and Alaska, probably because that’s where bears are more likely to be hunted and suffer food shortages, and where their habitats are less diverse.

It found that, over a series of decades, the number of human-bear encounters is increasing as people encroach on bear habitat. Climate change can also push bears into human-inhabited areas in search of food and habitat.

But the study itself was hampered by a lack of reliable information.

“Accurate data regarding risk of fatal attacks by black bear may influence risk perceptions and generate public support for bear management and conservation,” it reads.

Herrero stresses that the risk of a bear attack is very low. If a bear were to kill or harm a person it would most likely be killed, he adds.

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But they’re more often killed for being nuisances and potential risks rather than having already hurt someone. In 2013, 166 bears were killed by wildlife officials in Alberta, 84 in Ontario, 28 in Quebec and one in the Yukon.

Slowly, as human activity encroaches farther into their habitat, Canada’s provinces are getting better at tracking their bears: Programs such as Bear Wise (Ontario), BearSmart (Alberta) and Bear Aware (British Columbia) provide the public with information on bears and aims to reduce the number of incidences.

And a new initiative by Environment Yukon has conservation officers updating an interactive “Bear Incident Map” on its website. The map offers the date, general location, reason and outcome of each incident in records.

“Bears roaming in residential areas are a safety risk, to humans and to the bears themselves,” the site reads.

 With files from Deanna Grant

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