I mentioned in a previous blog post, The Encounter, that my son and I do annual hiking trips in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. This past weekend we did a trip to Jasper National Park hiking up the Sunwapta Peak trail. This was our 14th trip together. We stayed in a campground called, Wabasso, near the town of Jasper. When we were registering at the campground, we were warned that a black bear had been in the campsite the previous night. While eating our supper that evening, the people at the tent next to us started yelling, “there’s a bear!” They made a bunch of noise to scare the bear away. We never did get a glimpse of the wild animal but nonetheless, the possibility of a bear nearby always makes a person a bit anxious.
Now in the 14 years of doing this, we have only encountered a bear once (if you can call it that). It was five years ago and the black bear was on the trail in Jasper National Park some 500 or more metres ahead of us. When we yelled and my brother-in-law set off a “bear banger” (that is a device that makes a very loud bang) the bear took off. Bears are always on your mind when hiking in the mountainous wilderness so we’ve always taken precautions. All of us carry bear spray, a type of pepper spray or capsicum deterrent that is used to deter aggressive bears. Thankfully, we’ve never had to use it although we have talked to hikers who have. When we hike we travel in groups and make lots of noise so that if there is a bear nearby, it knows humans are nearby as Parks Canada advises. (see Safe Travel in Bear Country). We also make sure our food is stored in vehicles, lockers or on bear poles. Bear poles are tall metal poles with hooks so that hikers can hoist their bags (food especially) up to the hooks for safekeeping overnight.
Having freshly done a mountain hike in bear country, I began to have some questions about bears so I did some research. The first question I wondered: Just how common are bear attacks? According to the article, Behaviour, by the Get Bear Smart Society,
Bears are NOT mean or malicious. Bears are normally shy, retiring animals that have very little desire to interact with humans. Unless they are forced to be around humans to be near a food source, they usually choose to avoid us.
That leads to my second question: Just how common are bear attacks? According to the article, A few surprises in decades-long black bear study, in the Globe and Mail,
“Fatal black bear attacks were rare from 1900 to 2009 but they disproportionately occurred in Canada, according to an analysis published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Of the 63 people who died in 59 incidents, 44 victims were mauled in Canada. It’s not known why, but periodic food shortages due to shorter growing seasons could be a factor.”
That means there were only 44 Canadian victims in 109 year span. The article also reports,
Researchers found that the vast majority of the confrontations weren’t the result of chance meetings in the woods, but the outcome of predatory behaviour, nearly always by lone male black bears. Surprisingly, only 8 per cent of the deadly attacks were attributed to mother bears.
So that made me wonder: Why are there bear attacks? According to the Globe and Mail article,
Bear-caused fatalities have increased largely in lockstep with the continent’s human population growth and subsequent rise of recreational activities. Most of the deadly encounters with bears – 86 per cent – were recorded since 1960. Nine out of 10 times, the victim was alone or with only one other person. Improperly stored food and garbage was a likely attractant in 38 per cent of the incidents… In all cases, researchers found that bear pepper spray was not deployed as a measure of defence.
Another question: How do conservationists respond to bear habituation? Habituation is when a bear has constant, repeated exposure to people. When this happens bears can become increasingly bold and less afraid of people. These bears run the risk of becoming “problem” bears that enter townsites and campgrounds, places they are more likely to be illegally fed or rewarded with improperly stored garbage or pet food. Parks Canada’s wildlife specialists do their best to reverse this behaviour, but if a bear can’t be rehabilitated they are destroyed because they became too much of a risk to public safety. In areas outside the national parks, bears are often destroyed once they’ve been habituated. In Revelstoke, British Columbia, nine bears were destroyed in one week. (see the CBC article, 9 Bears Killed in one Week).
Recently Josh Bowmar, an American and a former javelin athlete, posted a video of himself killing a black bear in Alberta with a spear. That video caused sharp criticism on social media and from the provincial government. In the video, a black bear can be seen circling and then approaching the area that had been baited where Bowmar stands nearby before he impels the spear into the bear’s stomach. The bear ran off, likely suffering for many hours and was found dead the next day. Alberta’s government have since announced it will introduce a ban on spear hunting this fall as part of those updated regulations. (see Alberta Government orders Investigation). If you haven’t seen the video, here it is.
I was surprised that spear hunting was even legal in Alberta. I was even more surprised to learn that baiting bears and other animals was also legal. Personally, I’ve never understood the appeal of hunting. When I was a teen I once shoot a sparrow with my pellet gun and killed the bird. I felt so incredibly guilty when the bird died that I’ve never intentional killed an animal since except for mosquitos, flies and spiders when my wife forces me to. Typically, I rescue the spiders and put them outside.
The bottom line is we humans have an obligation to learn how to live in harmony with wildlife. All living creatures have a right to exist. In fact, UNESCO, an agency of the United Nations, issued a Declaration for All Life on Earth which declared, we shall create a world based on love and harmony in which all forms of life are respected. Organizations such as, World Wildlife Federation (WWF) states their mission to stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature. I believe this is possible and education is the key. Dr. Jane Goodall, an animal rights activist and best known for dwelling with Tanzanian chimps to observe their behaviour, said it best when she said, “Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help shall all be saved.” If you are going to be in bear country, it is imperative that you get educated. A good place to start is to read the Dispelling Myths article by the Get Bear Smart Society. To quote Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.