grizzly bear

Bears and cougars are the biggest wildlife threat to us here in B.C.. Sightings are fairly rare, and attacks are extremely rare, but they can happen. Below are safety guidelines and tips for preventing incidents and dealing with attacks. Some of the advice offered below on how to defend against attacks from these animals is debated and controversial.

Bear Safety

Like most wildlife, bears are naturally afraid of humans. Attacks are most common in situations where:

  • They are protecting young or food
  • They are startled or feel threatened
  • They follow food odor to your campsite
  • Your dog provokes the bear

General guidelines and precautions when in bear country:

  • Check for bear activity before you start your trip (signs at trail head, park rangers, etc)
  • Make noise to avoid startling the bear (talk loudly, or carry a bell)
  • Stay alert & look for signs of bear (droppings, up-turned rocks, etc)
  • Bring (readily accessible) bear spray or other deterrent, and bear proof food containers
  • Never approach a bear (duh!)
  • Hang your food in a tree if camping (at least 4m off the ground)
  • Never have food or food odors in your tent (or even near your campsite)
  • Travel in groups (never hike alone!)
  • Keep your dog on a leash (they can provoke the bear)

If you spot a bear, remain calm and do not run or scream. Remain facing the bear, and slowly back away while calmly talking to it, letting it know you are a human and not prey. Also, try to avoid direct eye contact, as this may be taken as a threat. The bear may growl or charge before stopping and turning away, but never run away or scream as this may only trigger an attack. Even if you are Donovan Bailey and the year is 1996, you will never outrun a bear (bears can run 66% faster the the world’s best sprinters). It is also a good idea to keep your pack on as this can act as protection in case of an attack.

You also need to determine whether it is a black bear, or grizzly, and whether an impending attack is defensive or predatory. Identifying the type of bear should be fairly easy. Black bears are smaller, and, well…black (grizzlies are light to dark brown), but telling them apart by colour isn’t always that easy. Click here for key identifiers between black and grizzly bears. Most of Southwestern B.C. is home to black bears. Grizzly bears will typically not be seen any further south than Whistler. You need to be able to tell the difference between them in case of an attack.

In the case of an attack from a bear you should try to determine whether the attack is defensive or predatory. A defensive attack will be triggered if you are too close to the bear’s young, its food source, or you startled it. A predatory attack happens when the bear is looking for dinner, and these attacks are very rare.

1) If it is a black bear: Discharge your bear spray once it is within a minimum distance of 25 feet of you, and sooner if possible. Bears have extremely sensitive noses, making bear spray fairly effective. If the bear continues to attack (or you don’t have bear spray), popular wisdom is to fight back against a black bear. Use rocks, sticks, fists, and all the adrenaline you can muster and fight back. Some advise only to fight a black bear if the attack is predatory, and to curl into a protective ball if the attack is defensive. If you choose to curl, drop to the ground, cover your neck, and get into a tight ball, staying as still as possible and not screaming.

2) If it is a grizzly bear: Similar to a black bear attacks, use bear spray if you have it. If the attack is defensive, experts agree to drop to the ground and curl into a ball, protecting your head and neck. Stay calm and don’t move, even if the bear begins to gnaw on you a little. You are very unlikely to win a battle with a grizzly so this strategy is your best bet, unless the attack is predatory. In this case your only option is to fight.

Again, predatory attacks are rare from both black and grizzly bears, but if such attack occurs, you need to fight back.

Other bear safety resources

– A great book on bear safety is Bear Attacks: Causes and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero.
Bears Without Fear by Kevin Van Tighem
Bear Aware
BC Parks’ Bear Safety
Get Bear Smart Society

Cougar Safety

It is rare to see cougars, but always expect the unexpected while in the outdoors. Children and pets are most likely to be the victim of a cougar attack. To minimize the chance of attack, follow the same guidelines for bears, such as never traveling alone and making lots of noise. If you encounter a cougar you should slowly back away, and never turn and run. If the cougar advances on you, make yourself look as big as possible, pick up any children you’re with, and scream your lungs off to try and scare it away. Basically, try to intimidate the cougar as much as possible. If the cougar continues to approach, you should even throw sticks and rocks at it. Let it know you are not easy prey, and if it attacks, fight back with all you have.

Other cougar safety resources

AdventureSmart’s cougar page
– BC Government’s Safety Guide to Cougars
Brave mountain lion fends off group of hikers, just for a laugh.

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