Upswing in grizzly attacks, black bear encounters not a reason to panic

Four grizzly bear attacks in B.C. this month may signal a short-term upswing in attacks, which usually have some connection to shortages in bears' natural food supply.

Bear encounters up, but recent attacks don't signal larger grizzly threat, experts say

Periodic food shortage plays a role in bear-human conflicts, but to extrapolate beyond that would be unfounded based on the evidence we have, say the experts. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

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.
Bears are opportunistic when it comes to feeding. (The Associated Press)

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.

"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. 
Canada's bears wreak havoc every year as they go through a binge period to bulk up for the winter. (Bill Roth/Alaska Dispatch News/Associated Press)

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. 

Some recent grizzly bear attacks in B.C. took place when unlucky hunters happened upon a mother feeding with her cubs. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

"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. 

Video: Watch how quickly bear turns on hiker's pets