'We're in bear country': Be alert, not alarmed, as bears bulk up for winter

Three black bear encounters just three weeks apart in Manitoba is no reason to panic about attacks or worry that the population of bruins is out of control, experts say.

Recent encounters point out we need to be aware when camping, hiking, experts say

Black bears will act aggressively if they feel threatened, but for the most part they avoid conflict, experts say. (CBC)

Three black bear encounters just three weeks apart in Manitoba is no reason to panic about attacks or worry that the population of bruins is out of control, experts say.

However, it is a good reminder to be alert and sensible in bear country because you're about to see a lot more of them.

"This is really when they start moving around, in the late summer and fall, bulking up for winter. This is the time we have to be more vigilant," said John Fleming, emergency co-ordinator for the Lac du Bonnet municipality northeast of Winnipeg.

On July 2, a Winnipeg man was bitten by a black bear along the Mantario trail, much of which is in Whiteshell Provincial Park.

On July 15, a family having a lunch on shore near Caddy Lake in the same park had their spaghetti lunch stolen by a bear that strolled up behind them. No one was injured.

Six days later an eight-year-old girl had her face scratched by a black bear at campsite not far from there. The bear swiped the tent, cutting the girl's face, then attempted to get the family's food barrel hanging from a nearby tree.

Conservation officers have been trying to locate the bear involved in that incident. It was last seen swimming away toward Caddy Lake.

They don't believe it's the same bear that was involved with the encounter on the Mantario trail because 30 kilometres separated the two sites.

As for the incident involving the spaghetti, conservation officers are not aware of it because they were never contacted.

Michal Schaap Fogler, whose family was involved, says she didn't report it because she didn't know it was unusual. The family is from Israel.

"I thought, 'This is Canada, this is probably what happens.' I thought everybody that goes to outdoors meets a bear," she said.

Warnings posted

The number of sightings in the Lac du Bonnet area, just northeast of Whiteshell Provincial Park, prompted Fleming to post a message on the area's emergency management website and Facebook page.

He wants to remind people to be aware and encouraging them to carry bear whistles, especially children.

Bear sightings prompted a warning earlier this month from the emergency management department in the Rural Municipality of Lac du Bonnet. (Lac du Bonnet Emergency Management/Facebook)

Despite that, Fleming doesn't believe there are more bears in the area, he just thinks social media is heightening awareness. Every time someone sees a bear, they note it on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.

"I think social media is allowing us to report it more, so we think there's more," he said.

And there's nothing wrong with that, he adds.

"We're talking about it more, which in my opinion is a good thing. I'm glad," Fleming said. "We're in bear country. The more we're aware of it and what we can do, we should have less people in trouble."

(Kaycee Karlowski/Facebook)

He's been living in the area for 15 years and regularly sees bears walking along the shoreline at his lakefront property.

Fleming recalls the second weekend after moving there, his wife saw a bear in the backyard and was in a panic. She called the town office and frantically reported the sighting. 

"The receptionist just said, 'You must be new here,'" he laughed. "The truth is, we're in their back yard. We should actually be teaching bears to be more people smart."

'Motivated by their stomachs'

Janine Stewart, a wildlife conflict biologist with the province's Sustainable Development department, agrees.

There haven't been more bear-sighting reports this year than usual, she says, but admits it's rare to have more than one report a year that involved contact between a person and a bear.

That said, at least two of the three incidents this year can be explained by one thing: food.

A black bear spotted earlier this summer near Powerview. (Tyson Koschik/CBC file photo)

In the encounters experienced by Schaap Fogler's family and the one where a girl was scratched, the bears were looking for food, not randomly attacking.

"Bears are motivated by their stomachs and led by their noses," Stewart said, while echoing Fleming's comments about an expected escalation in sightings over the next few weeks.

"They are tremendously focused on finding food to bulk up for hibernation and that activity increases in August," Stewart said.

'If they want food, they're gonna get food'

As for the attack on the Mantario trail, we might not really know the full story, says Mike Adey, who owns Whiteshell Outfitters and has lived in the area for more than 30 years.

There could have been food in the pack the hiker was carrying, he says, adding there's usually a reason a bear comes close to someone unprovoked. They're not trying to attack for the sake of attacking. 

"If they want food, they're gonna get food," said Adey, who used to work for the province's natural resources department, the precursor to Sustainable Development.

There's no rationale for them to be going to humans, unless it's food.- Mike Adey

He has seen bears rip through multiple tents and even tear their way into vehicles. But he has yet to see one that doesn't want to hightail it away into the trees when a person comes around.

"They don't want to contend with people. But if they do, what made them do that? We might never really know," he said. "You're not going to get the bear's story."

There's been "a fantastic berry crop this year" so it's not like the bears are skinny and hungry, which can explain why they can become troublesome in populated areas, Adey added.

"There's no rationale for them to be going to humans, unless it's food."

And those that typically encounter people are adolescents trying to find their way after their mothers send them out to survive on their own around age two, Adey said.

At first, they might encounter older bears who rough them up and chase them away from food sources. Until they find their own place and learn to stand up to those other bears, they'll go for the easiest food, which is what leads them to people, he says.

That sounds exactly like the one ​Schaap Fogler met. She described the bear as something "in the middle" between a cub and adult.

Be alert

Stewart echoed Fleming's comments about an expected escalation in sightings over the next few weeks.

"They are tremendously focused on finding food to bulk up for hibernation and that activity increases in August," Stewart said.

The key to being safe during that time is to be as bear smart as possible, and that means making every effort to not tempt them.

If in bear country:

  • Double bag garbage and place it in a bear-resistant container, secured building or fenced area.
  • Clean garbage containers regularly with bleach or ammonia.
  • Take garbage with you when you leave or ask a neighbour to put out your garbage just before pick-up.
  • Don't burn garbage.
  • Don't compost any food items outside.
  • Remove all bird feeders between April and November.
  • Clean barbecues thoroughly.
  • Wrap in plastic and store indoors when not in use.
  • Feed pets and keep their food dishes indoors.
  • Pick all ripened fruit from fruit trees. Remove fallen fruit from the ground.

"We don't want to make them accustomed to associating people with food," Stewart said, adding they have a great memory for locations where food has been available in the past and will return.

And when you're out and about, be alert and aware of your surroundings. Don't go hiking with headphones or earbuds that obscure your hearing, Stewart warns.

Watch for bear signs including tracks, droppings and claw marks on trees. Dug-up ant hills, overturned rocks and logs are indications bears were scrounging for insects.

Most important, carry bear spray and know how to use it, Stewart says: "We can educate people but we can't educate a bear. A bear is going to be a bear."

The province doesn't conduct population surveys of black bears but estimates there are 25,000–30,000 in Manitoba, Stewart says.

The most dense populations are in treed areas of the province and it just so happens that's also where people also like to camp and build cottages.

"So the more people that can be familiar [with bear-smart measures] and follow through, we'll all be happy," she said.

Anyone who has felt threatened or had actual contact with a bear is urged to report it to a conservation office.

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Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.


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