Safety Guide to Vancouver Island Bears
As the human population increases and people encroach on wilderness areas, conflicts between bears and people become increasingly more common. These encounters can be dangerous – all too often they are fatal for the bear.
Bears are not the problem, we are the problem. The primary motivation behind bears and human conflict is improper care of garbage and other attractants. It is our responsibility to eliminate the source of the problem – our behaviour. People and bears are sharing habitat all over British Columbia and the bears are not capable of change, but we are. Make it your responsibility to create safer communities and wilderness recreation areas to prevent the unnecessary killing of bears.
Did you Know Bears can smell?
Bears have an extraordinary sense of smell; they can smell garbage and other potential sources of food over vast distances. When bears learn that garbage means easy food, they come back to it over and over again. Our odor remains on our garbage long after it is discarded so bears learn to associate people with food. This is where the menace lies. The bears that are familiar with garbage may become aggressive, expecting food every time they see or smell people.
Bears natural diet consists mostly of berries, green vegetation, roots, insects, grubs and carrion. Garbage, on the other hand, can cause injuries such as cuts and ingestion of harmful substances, glass or chemicals as well permanently changing their natural behaviour around people.
When bears become conditioned to garbage and other non-natural foods, often the only practical solution is to kill them. Relocation is usually ineffective, dangerous and costly.
Use a noise maker such as bells; hang them on your bike or the back of your pack. It is necessary to make noise, especially because hiking or biking can be a silent activity in addition to the fact that bikes move very fast. Bells are a start, but using your voice is an even better noise maker.
Watch for bear sign. If you suspect a bear may be in the area (based on food or plants or signs), leave the area if possible, or at the very least, make an excessive amount of noise.
Avoid trails that are near food sources. West coast bears feed in salmon bearing streams from mid-summer to late fall and are most likely to be found fishing at the mouth of the rivers and streams.
Hike or ride in groups. This will increase your noise level and also ensure that there will be someone to assist you if necessary.
Always keep small children close. Most animal attacks are on small children. Keep them well attended and away from possible bear food sources.
Carry bear spray in an easy accessible spot. It will do you no good if it is in the bottom of your pack or in a bag attached to the side of your bike.
If you See a Bear:
Most bears are not a danger, however if you see a bear, proceed out of the area, particularly if the bear has cubs. A mother bear is at her most dangerous when she has cubs to protect. The cubs may be cute, but the mother is not.
When you see cubs up a tree leave the area, this generally means that mom is not far away and she has already put her little ones in a protective position. The sow may attack quickly and without provocation if you are perceived as a threat to her cubs. At times, she may follow them up the tree but chances are she will not stay up the tree herself. If she feels the threat to her young she will come down and charge.
On rare occasions bears may have second year cubs and they may as a group participates in a bluff charge. This can be a dangerous circumstance as you are now dealing with multiple bears. While this situation is rare, it would follow an occasion where the family is protecting a kill site.
What to do When you Meet a Bear?
Whenever travelling in bear country, you have to accept the possibility that you may encounter a bear. The tips on these pages will help diminish the odds of meeting an aggressive bear, but at the same time, you need to be prepared for what to do when the unforeseen occurs.
The bear has not seen you; do not announce your presence. If possible, retreat slowly and give the bear ample of space. If you have the opportunity, retreat and leave the trail to the bear. If you must carry on, back off a short distance, and wait until the bear has left the area. It is smart also to do a wide detour quietly and quickly downwind to avoid problems.
The bear has detected you but is a distance away, first give the bear a chance to identify you as human but also let it know that you are no threat. Speak calmly so that it knows you are a human as chances are they cannot see you clearly (their eyesight is quite poor). They will often give ground to you immediately once they identify you as human. Back away slowly if you can, keeping a close eye on the bear, in any case, you may wish to detour around the bear, if so, detour upwind so that the bear can get your scent, keep talking calmly, waving your arms may help to identify you as a human.
The bear is displaying signs of aggression. The best case scenario for this circumstance is that you have a bit of distance between you and the bear.
- Assess the situation. Are you dealing with a black bear or a grizzly (grizzlies are not indigenous to Vancouver Island, but have been known to swim from the mainland).
- Do not run. Despite rumours to the contrary, black and grizzly bears can outrun a human on any terrain, uphill or downhill. The urban myth says that grizzlies are slower running downhill, which is true however they can still run much faster than you can. It is simply a myth, that they are slower– don’t try it!
- Retreat slowly and carefully. Back up slowly aiming to put as much distance between you and the bear as possible. Stay cool, talk calmly, and back up gradually. Keep your backpack on to provide added protection. Keep your eyes on the bear as you back away, but do not make direct eye contact.
- Climb a tree if accessible. If you have time, and the bear persists on moving closer, take advantage of a tall tree to climb. Remember that black bears are strong climbers as well. Grizzlies have also been known to climb short distances up trees after people, however with their bulk they are likely not to try. You want to get at least 10 meters high to reduce the prospect of being dragged out of the tree. Even though some bears can climb up the tree after you, the expectation is that they will feel less threatened and thus unlikely to follow you up the tree.
- If the bear charges you. Bears will often bluff charge before attacking. This action is intended to allow enemies to back down before the bear needs to commence an actually attack. This behaviour evolved as a way to prevent encounters with enemies and fortunately for you it may provide you with an opportunity to back away.
- Use your pepper spray, only as a last resort, because its effectiveness is only guaranteed at close range (5 meters). Any wind will reduce the effective range even farther and you run the chance of having the pepper spray back into your face. If the bear is within this range, point the spray at his eyes and discharge the contents. Hopefully, this will disorient the bear, providing you with the opportunity to escape or at the very least frightening the bear enough to prevent it from attacking. Once you have discharged a canister of bear spray is should be discarded, as soon as possible because the smell of pepper can act as an attractant. Don’t throw it in the bush.
- If a bear is tracking you and makes contact. If the attack intensifies and a bear that is stalking you makes physical contact with you, fight back with anything available. Black bears are more timid than grizzlies and fighting back may cause the bear to run. If a bear is tracking you or if the attack is at night then you are in a predatory situation and fighting back is you’re only alternative.
- If a grizzly makes contact. If you think the bear is stalking you, fight back with everything you have. In general though, playing dead in a daytime grizzly encounter has been proven to reduce the injuries sustained by most attack victims. Most grizzly attacks are defensive attacks, and playing dead may demonstrate to the bear that you are not a danger to them. Keep your backpack on as it will provide added protection, and it is best to lie on your side in a foetal position.
- Bring your legs up to your chest and tuck your head into your legs. Wrap your arms around your legs and hold on as tight as you can. Alternatively you can lie on your stomach, keeping your backpack on, and placing your hands behind your neck for protection. Only wait until the last moment to play dead, staying on your feet allows you the possibility of avoiding, or diverting the attack.
- After an attack, be patient, wait a few minutes, and try to determine if the bear is still in the area. When the bear has moved on, make your way out of the area and get assistance as quickly as possible.