It's been a bear-heavy summer in Canada. We've seen them splash through backyard pools to escape scorching heat, break into homes and businesses to bulk up on everything from freshly made pies to whatever can be clawed out of a dumpster. They have even crashed weddings.
But perhaps the most striking phenomenon is a spate of grizzly bear attacks in the wilds of British Columbia involving hunters (and one angler) who stumbled upon the animals near a food source.
Three of the four grizzly attacks in the last two weeks — more than the entire province saw in all of 2014 — were in the East Kootenay region, albeit in natural grizzly bear habitat.
These unlucky hunters were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and while none of the attacks were fatal, conservation officers in southeast B.C. and elsewhere are urging vigilance. Short-term upswings in bear attacks happen from time to time, and they usually have some connection to shortages in natural food for bears.
- B.C. bears at risk because of a lack of food, wildlife experts say
- Hungry bears still a nuisance across Canada
"It's a real mixed bag of some of the causes of the attacks this year," said Sgt. Cam Schley of the B.C. Conservation Officer Service. "It's not uncommon to have bears where [the hunters] were, but generally, with this level of complaints, we are seeing an increase in bears.
"There is a higher stress level in bears due to a shortage of natural food supplies and we are seeing bears in areas that are not normal for this time of year."
A hot, dry summer, coupled with an early berry season and a low projected salmon run, has driven hungry bears looking for food — mostly black bears, but grizzlies, too — into residential areas in provinces such as B.C., Ontario and Manitoba.
Beware sweeping claims - but be vigilant
In the context of seasonal natural food scarcity, it makes sense to encourage vigilance, says Steve Primm, conservation director at People and Carnivores in Bozeman, Mont.
"Food scarcity means that bears are ranging more widely, frequenting places they might not otherwise, and perhaps more willing to take risks," he said.
However, the seasonal food shortage is no reason to start making unfounded claims, he says.
While periodic food shortages play a role in bear-human conflicts, to extrapolate beyond that would be unfounded based on the evidence we have, say the experts.
Messages on safety during a rise in seasonal encounters can be delivered without implying that bears on the whole are behaving in some new way, or that there are too many bears, or any other unfounded inferences, Primm says.
"We get year-to-year fluctuations," said Frank Ritcey of WildSafeBC, a non-profit that works with B.C. Conservation Foundation. "There's nothing there to tell me there's a larger conflict trend or some plot by the grizzly bear union. The normal berry supply isn't there, but that's not to say they're all starving to death."
Opportunity to teach
Bears will jump at any opportunity to eat, which can often make headlines when it leads them to our backyards. But bear experts also jump on the opportunity to use those incidents to educate us on bear safety.
"There's no better time to remind people to be careful than when events are fresh in their minds," said Primm.
Ritcey jumps at the opportunity to educate readers on bear safety.
"We've had a few incidents, but there are a whole bunch of things people can do to stay safe when they are in bear country, and all of B.C. is bear country," he said.
A large percentage of bear maulings in North America are precipitated by dogs that are off leash, he says. It is more often the case than incidents where hunters are in close proximity to bears protecting a kill.
"Dogs chase bear and then bear chases dogs, and where do the dogs go? Straight back to their master."
But don't just take his word for it, Ritcey says – watch the bear video he shot in B.C. grasslands of two dogs that were off leash in bear country.
"What's interesting to note is how fast [the bear] turns on the dogs and chases them," Ritcey explains.
A three-year study of 92 black bear attacks across North America showed that over half of them involved a dog off leash in a rural setting, according to bear researcher and former University of Calgary professor Stephen Herrero.