Suncor attack: Why black bears kill and safety in the field

Carolyn Campbell is a conservation specialist with Alberta Wilderness Association. The CBC asked her questions about why a black bear would attack and about safety in the field.

Wildlife expert answers questions on the fatal attack involving a Suncor worker

The judge said we have an obligation to protect wildlife. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Black bears are often considered less of a threat than their larger cousin, the grizzly. The last fatal attack in Alberta involving a black bear was well over a decade ago.

But the mauling of a Suncor employee near Fort McMurray on Wednesday is a reminder of the risk posed by these wild animals that typically weigh around 200 kilograms.

The CBC spoke with  Alberta Wilderness Association conservation specialist Carolyn Campbell about the attack. She expressed her condolences to victim Lorna Weafer's family. 

What would prompt a black bear to be involved in a fatal attack?

First, it’s important to know that fatal black bear attacks are very rare. University of Calgary bear biologist, Stephen Herraro, led a research team that gathered every record it could, and found only 59 fatal black bear attacks throughout North America between 1900 and 2009.

Carolyn Campbell, an Alberta Wilderness Association conservation specialist, says black bear attacks on humans are very rare. (Submitted by Carolyn Campbell)

In most human encounters with black bears, the bears show defensive behaviour and want to leave as quickly as they can. Of the very rare attacks, a high proportion were predatory attacks by male black bears on a group of one or two people who did not have any deterrents such as pepper spray. In about 40 per cent of the cases, the bears had been attracted by food or edible garbage and were also known to have previously either fed on or approached nearby food or garbage.

The lesson is, first, be very careful not to give bears any access to food, garbage, dump sites, any type of attractants. Second, even with that precaution, a very few male black bears may seize an opportunity to attack a lone person or two people. So, when you are in bear country, be alert to the presence and behaviour of bears, travel in a group of three or more, carry pepper spray and know how to use it if necessary.

How common is contact between bears and oil and gas workers? 

To my knowledge, no statistics are available. The Alberta government does not publish data of even serious incidents, such as when it is called in to shoot garbage-habituated bears. It should publish these records. It should also send a stronger message about the importance of deterrents by fining companies that are mismanaging food, garbage and other attractants.

How well are energy companies preparing their employees to work in the field?

Our impression is that larger, longer-term operators like Suncor do train their employees in wildlife awareness and safety. In 2011, there was a serious problem with some operators who were carelessly allowing bears in camps and facilities to become habituated to eating garbage.

In fact, 145 so-called nuisance black bears were shot in northeast Alberta in the fall of 2011, of which half were at energy camps or plant sites. This is totally unacceptable. Yet no companies were named, no fines were given. There should be more transparency from the Alberta government on what is expected from companies and who is falling short, both for worker safety and to respect the wildlife whose habitat has been altered by industrial disturbance. In this particular tragic case of May 2014, though, we want to emphasize that we have no evidence at all that Suncor did anything wrong.

Finally, what should people do if they are attacked by a black bear?

First, of course, minimize the risk by removing food attractants, travelling in a group of three or more, and never provoke a bear by harassing it or allowing dogs to harass it.

Second, recognize the difference between defensive and predatory behaviour. Defensive behaviour is when the bear doesn’t immediately flee, includes grunting noises, teeth clicking, swatting the ground with front paws, short charges that stop short of contact or slow approaches. Giving the bear room to leave is best.

In predatory attacks, which are not typical behaviour, black bears instead stalk more stealthily and then proceed to a full out attack. If it is a predatory attack, then people should try to deter or fight the bear using everything possible, including making loud noises, using bear spray or any other potential weapon such as fists, clubs, rocks, knives or guns.