In Depth

Keeping bears at bay at home or outdoors

Canadians can take simple steps to take to limit bear encounters near their homes or in the outdoors, such as controlling garbage scents or keeping their dogs on a leash, wildlife experts say.

Awareness over what attracts bears can prevent bad encounters: wildlife experts

When hiking or camping in bear country, people should never cook near their tent or bring food where they sleep, says B.C. biologist Mike Badry. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Patricia King was eating lunch in the backcountry of Ontario's Killarney Provincial Park, not far from the main campground, when she heard a noise in the nearby woods.

"I immediately wondered if it was a bear. Sure enough it was," said King, a 57-year-old criminal defence lawyer and experienced camper from Cambridge, Ont.

King saw the bear was a cub, and groaned.

"Seconds later, Mama Bear appeared," she told

She saw the bears were headed her way. And so did her dog, who rushed to head the bears off.

Wildlife encounters

As Canadians spend more time outdoors during the summer, encounters with wildlife such as bears can be expected to increase.

With recent bear attacks in British Columbia generating more questions about human-bear interactions, wildlife experts stress that such attacks are rare and there are simple steps to take to limit the chance of an encounter close to home or while camping.

The number of bears that wildlife officials have to kill in B.C. because of conflicts has been declining over the last 20 years, said Mike Badry, a biologist who works as a wildlife conflicts prevention co-ordinator with the B.C. Ministry of the Environment.

Badry told CBC News that people are becoming more aware of what attracts bears to their communities or campsites, and are better controlling their garbage, or removing attractants like fruit trees and bird-feeders from their properties.

When hiking or camping in bear country, people should never cook near their tent or bring food where they sleep, he said. Instead, they should use bear poles or bear-proof food barrel containers to isolate the food and reduce its smell. 

"If you're camping, you have to manage those attractants properly," he said.

Badry recommends campers have bear spray accessible and somewhere where they can use it — and keep their dogs on a leash.

"It's that dog that the bear is seeing as a threat, but when it goes after the dog, the dog goes back to the owner," he said.

Most bears try to avoid people, but their behaviour can be unpredictable. Old or wounded bears can be desperate, either in pain or starving. Bears used to the proximity of people can be dangerous, and female bears with cubs can aggressively defend their young.

But seeing a bear in the wild doesn't necessarily mean one is in danger, said Linda Wall, coordinator for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources' Bear Wise program.

Wall said her program, which is aimed at reducing the preventable causes of human-bear conflicts, gets dozens of calls from people alarmed at seeing the animals on the side of a rural highway while they're driving.

"When bears are where they should be, that's a good thing," said Wall. "We want to keep the bears wild. Just be aware of the area you're in."

During times when natural foods are less abundant, bears will look for alternative food sources and are often drawn to populated areas where garbage, pet food and bird feeders give off an attractive scent, Wall said.

"Bears follow their noses," she said. "They will explore smells and be attracted to our neighbourhoods and our yards."

"Garbage cans are like a picnic basket for a bear."

Those who encounter bears trying to get at a food source on their property should try to scare them back in the direction they came from by making a loud noise, such as banging pots and pans together.

Or try pressing the panic button on your car keys, Wall said.

"If they're not getting food, then they're not going to come back," she added.

'It was time to leave'

Patricia King didn't want the mother bear and her cub crossing the beaver dam that lay between her and the animals. She worried her dog could bring more danger.

After she lost sight of the bears, she said she heard another noise between her dog's barks.

"I realized it was Mama Bear hissing and growling back at the dog," she said.

"At that point I called the dog back. I did not want to aggravate the bear any more than necessary. She did come back, thank goodness. The bears then disappeared."

She then realized she didn't want to spend the night there.

"It was obvious to me it was time to leave," she said.

Despite her recent encounter, King said she still wants to continue camping. But she also plans to buy some bear spray before she heads back out into the wilderness.

"I really don't relish another experience like that," she said.