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Fall Special: Wildlife Safety Tips for Hikers

Black Bear


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It’s autumn and it’s hiking season! It’s also a time when wildlife is at its most active — here are my top tips for staying safe in wild spaces:

In This Wildlife Safety Article You Will Discover:

  • Tips for Bear Safety
  • How to Deal With Wolves
  • Cougars & Coyote Tactics

I live in British Columbia — and it is a hiker’s paradise. From the tidal regions, to the temperate rainforests, to the arid plains and rugged mountains, one could hike a lifetime and barely scratch the surface. And of course, there’s the wildlife — for better or for worse. With many bear populations at historic highs as well as an increase in human-habituated wildlife, uncomfortable encounters with animals can happen. While almost every such sighting ends without concern, bears, cougars, wolves and coyotes are all found in Canada and the U.S. and require a level of delicacy beyond what’s reserved for raccoons.

Remember these creatures generally don’t want trouble with you anymore than you want it with them. But if you do find yourself in a close encounter of the wild kind, there are several techniques that can diffuse the situation and send all parties home safely.

Bears

Black bears are one of the more commonly spotted predatory species in BC, and the mainland harbours grizzlies (there are no documented grizzly populations on Vancouver Island or the Haida Gwaii); both are wonderful sightings — from a safe (distant or protected) vantage point. An encounter in the bear’s domain is another matter altogether.

Dan LeGrandeur is the owner of Bear Scare, a company that specializes in the training of non-lethal methods to prevent human/wildlife conflicts.

According to him, the best way to avoid bears is to make your presence pre-emptively known.

While trekking through trails, chat loudly with your companion. Clap your hands. Every once in a while, yell out “No bear! No bear!” If you insist on hiking solo, sing a tune, ring a bell or take along a signal air-horn (available at marine supply stores) and give it a blast every once in a while.

“If a bear knows you’re around, the majority of the time it’ll leave. You won’t even know it was there in the first place,” says LeGrandeur.

During your hike, always be aware of your surroundings. (This is not the time for iPods, people.) Keep a lookout for bear sign, such as scat, tracks or rubs. Bears produce territorial warnings in the forms of these signs; warnings you need to be paying attention to. If you don’t, a bear could perceive this as aggression on your part.

Tempting as they are, even berry patches can bring bad mojo — berries mean bears and hungry ones at that. And keep your nose up, as the smell of rotten flesh or fish is one to be wary of. It’s bear attractor numero uno.

Furthermore, don’t give bears a reason to come your way. If your plan is to have a shore lunch followed by a hike, make sure your foodstuffs are consumed or returned to the car/disposal (this is general wildlife safety). And keep mindful of your own scent. Did you wash with papaya shampoo and strawberry soap this morning? What about berry-scented lip balm or coconut sunscreen? Try to smell like a human, not a breakfast buffet.

There is much lore about tactics for dealing with grizzlies versus black bears, but these days experts like LeGrandeur prefer to divide bears in terms of behaviour, not species. These behaviours are: defensive and predatory.

Defensive behaviour occurs when a bear feels threatened or is protecting its food or cubs. These bears will show signs of stress: huffing, vocalizing, jaw-popping, pawing the ground, breaking branches or even “bluff charges,” but what they want is for you to go away — for you to be no longer be a threat.

“Don’t run as this may provoke a chase. Stop and face the bear. Don’t challenge it [with eye contact]. Keep the bear in view and back off,” says LeGrandeur. He also recommends talking to the bear in calm, low-pitched voice. This not only serves to dissuade the bear, but will calm you and keep your brain working so you can intelligently assess the situation.

“I can’t over-estimate the importance of bear spray in the backwoods,” adds LeGrandeur. “Buy it and learn to use it properly.” He states that bear spray, within its range of about five metres, is 98 per cent effective in warding off all bears, canines and cougars.

However, if an attack from a defensive bear becomes imminent and you are without a means of defence (i.e. bear spray) — experts advise you to lie down in a protective position, regardless of the species. Ideally, the threat you pose will be diminished and the bear can leave in peace.

According to a paper published by University of Calgary Professor Emeritus Stephen Herrero, 88 per cent of fatal black bear attacks in the past 100 years have been from predatory bears and 92 per cent of those bear were males (boars).

This totally debunks conventional wisdom stating a “momma bear with cubs” is your greatest concern — mother bears are, in fact, usually defensive.

Predatory behaviour, rare as it is, means the bear is stalking you — it is aware of your presence and is actively closing in. Bears will be stealthy during this process and exhibit little signs of stress. Regardless whether black or grizzly, bear spray is your go-to here. Professor Herrero also found that the odds of being attacked dropped exponentially when people were in groups of two or more. So buddy up!

However, LeGrandeur advises that black bears’ natural curiosity can confuse hikers when trying to identify predatory versus defensive behaviour. In areas of higher human populations, such as BC’s Lower Mainland, black bears have been known to approach humans in a calm, almost “predatory” fashion, though it is merely because they are habituated and/or food conditioned. Keep this in mind if you encounter a black bear near a population centre.

Of course, if you cannot assess a bear’s intent, LeGrandeur advises you to play the odds. If you’re in a remote area and are actively stalked or approached by a black bear, assume it is predatory. An approaching grizzly is more often defensive.

There is no safe minimum distance from bears and no two bears behave alike. If you see one, leave the area the way you came and do not return. But remember, considering the amount of human intrusion into bear territory each year, bear attacks are really very rare — we’re talking lottery rare.

Cougars

North America’s largest cat, cougars are elusive, wary and due to their incredible predatory skills in the wild, have long been the source of often-irrational fears. Certainly, cougars have been found to show curiosity towards humans, but attacks are very rare. That said, Vancouver Island in particular has a high population of these cats, and cougar attacks have occurred on the Island in greater frequency than anywhere else in North America (still rare though). So there are some general safety rules to keep in mind while cruising cougar territory.

For starters, cougars are intimidated by size — the majority of the (few) documented cougar attacks on humans have been on young children. If you do encounter a cougar, the first thing you should do is make yourself as big as possible. (This also means picking up your small pets and/or children.) Stand tall, hold out your arms, and if you can grab a fallen branch, do so, and hold it over your head to appear even larger. Unlike with a bear, maintain eye contact with the cat — your intent is to intimidate. Then back away slowly to provide the animal with a clear avenue of escape. Do not turn your back on a cougar and do not run; running can trigger an instinctive attack. The BC Ministry of Environment also suggests you “speak loudly and firmly” to indicate you’re not prey. If the animal approaches you further, use your bear spray or pelt it with sticks and stones — right in the kisser.

The longer it sticks around, the more aggressive you need to be, focusing your attack on its head and face. Make yourself more trouble than you’re worth.

Cougars present a very real danger to small pets (cats particularly). Conversely, large dogs are great “cougar detectors,” and will often bark wildly in the presence of a cat. In the face of such a ruckus, cougars tend to high-tail it before you can even figure out what Fido was making a fuss over.

Wolves

According to the BC Ministry of Environment, aggressive behaviour towards humans from wolves is rare. This is backed up by the fact that, in North America, there have only been two documented human fatalities attributed to wild wolves in the past 100 years. In essence — worry about getting lost, not wolves.

Tactics for dealing with wolves are much the same as those for dealing with cougars. First off, should you spot a wolf, give it a wide berth. The Ministry of Environment suggests making yourself scarce if you find yourself within 100 metres of a wolf. Of course, don’t give a wolf a reason to come to you — store your garbage and food in airtight containers and dispose of it or return it to your car as soon as the picnic is over.

In the unlikely event of being approached by an aggressive wolf or wolves, pick up any pets or children and make yourself “big.” Back away calmly. If your arms are free, wave them above your head or grab a large stick; do anything to increase the appearance of your size. Keep your eyes on the animal at all times until it runs off or you’ve reached safety. Again — do not run. If the wolf continues its advance, speak loudly and throw rocks, sticks, sand or anything else you can find (once again, bear spray is your key here).

The Ministry of Environment further suggests that if you are with a group, “act in unison” to let the wolves know they’re not welcome. This means staying together in a united front — forming a “pack,” if you will.

Finally, there have been confirmed cases of wolves killing or injuring dogs in marine parks on Vancouver Island’s West Coast, so keep your pup on a leash in wolf country.

Coyotes

These cagey scavengers usually don’t top the list of peoples’ idea of dangerous game, however, the shocking fatal attack on 19-year-old Taylor Mitchell on Cape Breton Island, NS, in 2009 (the only recorded fatal attack on an adult) caused the entire nation to stand up and take notice of coyote safety. These animals can reach 20 kilograms in weight and will pack-up to take down prey. Notwithstanding, coyote-human attacks are the rarest of the rare. Further, coyotes are only present on the mainland coast — there are no coyotes on the islands.

Again, the BC Ministry of Environment suggests similar tactics for dealing with coyotes described above for cougars and wolves. However, if you find yourself approached by coyotes — don’t be afraid to err on the side of aggression (once again, bear spray is key). The chance of these naturally timid creatures continuing their approach is infinitesimal. Finally, give a very wide berth to feeding or scavenging coyotes.

If you’re in an urban area or hiking in a designated park and you encounter aggressive coyotes, report the behaviour to the park authorities. Such activity is extremely abnormal and should be investigated by conservation officers immediately.

General Safety

Remember, hiking in wild areas means, above all, limiting attractants (food and food smells), always making your presence conspicuous and never approaching any wildlife of any species, even if just for a “quick photo.” Along with being a danger, it is an offence to harass or feed wildlife.

BC’s abundant wildlife is a treasure and a resource we can all be proud of. Don’t be scared to enjoy our parks and wild areas — just be prepared.

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This article originally appeared in Pacific Yachting magazine, July 2012.

About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

8 comments… add one
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  • Katie Nov 10, 2012 Link

    Super helpful post, that post is definitely worth a re-read before I take my next hike!

  • Sarah Nov 5, 2012 Link

    As a native of the UK, the idea of dangerous wild animals is alien to me. However this article is a real interesting read, it’s so nice to hear advice on safety without an unnecessary scare mongering. Very informative, I only hope I’ll remember the information if I ever need it.

  • isaacoomber Nov 5, 2012 Link

    Well, it should be very interesting !!

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