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Spring Fling with Danger


It felt like a near-miss incident when I read about the closure of several popular trails in Banff in mid-May due to a hiker’s close encounter with a bear. I had recently returned from Canmore and Banff, where I was hiking alone for several days prior to attending a conference and trade show in Banff in May — the same month in which a camper in British Columbia was killed by a bear in a separate incident while sleeping outdoors by a fire pit.

Welcome to bear country in the spring. While I had a can of bear spray with me, I was often the first to hit the trails in the chilly mornings before the crowd sets in. Not the best demonstration of judgement, some might argue, considering that spring is the season when bears are out foraging for food after a winter of hibernation. In my defence, I also wore a bear bell that I constantly jangled when I was out and about in the woods.

That said, workers’ encounters with wildlife, such as the one that resulted in the death of a female Suncor employee at a job site near Fort McMurray, Alberta last year offer little assurance. The 36-year-old employee was working in a group at a busy industrial site when she was singled out and attacked by a bear. Her co-workers blasted air horns in an attempt to drive away the predator, but to no avail.

According to a decades-long study, Fatal Attacks by American Black Bear on People: 1900–2009, published in 2011 in The Journal of Wildlife Management, 63 people were killed in 59 incidents in Canada, Alaska and the lower 48 states during that period. While the risk of bear attacks against people is low — considering that there are millions of interactions between humans and black bears with no injuries — it nevertheless exists, says study author and University of Calgary professor emeritus Dr. Stephen Herrero.

The rates of bear attacks on humans are rising with human population growth, and lone male bears are often the most dangerous, the study says. A whopping 86 per cent of fatal bear attacks between those decades occurred since 1960. Despite lower human populations in Canada and Alaska, fatalities are more common in these northern areas, where 77 per cent of 63 fatal attacks took place, compared to south of the 49th parallel.

And contrary to the popular belief that surprising a mother bear with her cubs is the most dangerous, 92 per cent of the bears involved in deadly attacks during the 110 years studied were males. Lone, male black bears hunting people as a potential source of food are a greater cause of deadly maulings and related predatory attempts, the study concludes.

According to a guide from the Alberta government, Bears and Industrial Workers, bears are attracted by petroleum-based products like fuel, oil and jerry cans. Bears may also lose their fear of humans if they have repeated contact with them with no negative consequences in a process called human habituation.

Human and wildlife encounters will likely increase as a result of human encroachment, be that in the form of people seeking recreational opportunities in the wild or extending industrial activities into the deeper recesses of bear country. For companies with operations in remote worksites, the hazard of wildlife encounters needs to feature more prominently in their prevention efforts.

Often, one does not truly appreciate danger until one has flirted and got away with it. As to whether my lonesome venture into bear country in spring was an intrepid endeavour or simply cavalier, the bottom line is that I have lived to spread the cautionary tale for the benefit of all.

You are welcome.