It can be a frightening experience to happen across one of nature’s apex predators while simply enjoying the outdoors, but that’s exactly what many in Manitoba are reporting this year.
Manitoba Conservation says it typically receives around 1,500 reports of bear interactions in an entire season.
So far during this one, there have already been around 1,000.
“It’s looking like we’re going to have an above average year,” says Janine Wilmot, a human-wildlife conflict biologist with Manitoba Conservation.
“So we’re continuing with our efforts trying to educate people, making sure they are securing any attractants in their yard and in their campsites so that we reduce those number of interactions we’re seeing reports about.”
Wilmot says the increase isn’t specific to one area, but many campgrounds are reporting more run-ins than usual.
“I think there’s probably a lot of new campers that are out in these areas, and maybe just aren’t familiar with the importance of securing the attractants on their site,” Wilmot says.
“Things like not leaving a cooler outside of your campers. You want to make sure that any food or garbage that you have on your site is stored in a secure manner so it can’t be accessed by wildlife such as black bears.”
A good rule, Wilmot says, is if it can be opened with a crowbar, it’s likely not black bear-proof.
Barret Miller, with Fort Whyte Alive in Winnipeg, agrees the higher volume of people hitting the backcountry this year likely has more to do with the rise in interactions than anything the bears are doing.
“They tend to want to keep their distance. It’s a bit of a cliché, but animals really are as afraid of us as we are of them,” Miller says, adding campers can keep themselves safe long before they actually lay eyes on a bear.
“First off, make sure the bear is aware that you’re in the area. Normal conversation, maybe sing a little song. If you have pets or kids with you, keep them close.”
Food storage is also critical to keeping a campsite bear-free.
Miller suggests storing food some 100 paces away from where you’re sleeping — up a tree, if possible — and avoid leaving snacks inside a tent.
Both Wilmot and Miller say the first thing to do if one does happen to cross paths with a bear is to remain calm, assess the situation and back away slowly the way you came.
“You make yourself as big as possible, and speak to the animal in the deepest, least food-like voice you can muster. I like to channel a little bit of Johnny Cash,” Miller says.
“Let that bear know where you are, that you’re backing off, and that it should be having a good day, thank you very much.”
One of the last things a person should do is turn and run. Miller says a bear’s instincts could kick in and it might give chase.
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“When it doubt, bop it on the snout,” Miller says.
“If the animal is going to make contact with you, and you have no choice, swing for the fences. No mammal likes getting punched in the nose. That would end that encounter.”
Whether it be bears or even chipmunks, Miller and Wilmot say people should not be feeding wildlife.
“This really increases safety risks, not only for the person doing the feeding, but everyone else in that area,” Wilmot says.
“Basically when a black bear receives a food reward, it starts to associate people with being a source of food, and it’s going to become increasingly bold in approaching people, and more aggressive in trying to obtain food from them.”
Despite the possibility of becoming more acquainted with animals, Miller says people shouldn’t let that stop them from exploring the outdoors this summer, noting the odds of having an encounter with a bear remain very low.
“Just literally be a respectful, responsible visitor, and if it comes down to making yourself a bigger person and walking away, do that and it’ll be a great enjoyable time,” Miller says.