Bear, coyote encounters show people too complacent in the wilderness, experts say
Knowledge, training needed to keep people and animals safe in the wild
Wildlife and wilderness survival experts say a recent bear attack and sightings of coyotes in an urban forest demonstrate how people and animals are increasingly encroaching on each other's territory.
People are often too complacent as they venture into the wilderness, while animals are adapting to survive in human environments.
"We're kind of complacent because we watch too much Walt Disney, and you just can't run through a wild forest with your headset on. It's not a good idea," said Dave MacDonald, president and lead instructor of the International Canadian School of Survival, based in Lac du Bonnet, Man.
Earlier this week, a woman was struck in the face by a startled black bear while running with her four off-leash dogs in Manitoba's Riding Mountain National Park. At the time, restrictions in place prohibited dogs, bikes and groups of less than three.
The woman told CBC News that she is an experienced hiker and backpacker, but acknowledged she got complacent.
The number of human-bear interactions has been higher than normal this year, according to Manitoba Conservation and Climate.
On Tuesday, the City of Winnipeg closed off a section of Assiniboine Forest after receiving numerous reports of coyotes acting in a predatory manner.
One possible explanation for the recent increase in human-animal encounters is the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic on our behaviour, said Jim Duncan, former head of the province of Manitoba's wildlife branch.
"It's quite clear that people have more time to spend outdoors and they're seeking activities that are relatively safe, or in safe environments — safe from COVID," said Duncan.
But as more people head into areas that "wildlife also call home," he says, "there's I think a higher chance of incidents like what we've been seeing."
Movement to get outdoors
Humans are putting increasing pressure on animal habitats, pushing farther into territory previously exclusive to animals, and forcing the animals to adapt to living amongst us, said MacDonald.
"There's a bigger movement now to get out in those wild places, away from everything. There's a lot of people doing backcountry hikes and pilgrimages and all of that," he said, increasing the chances of animal encounters.
At the same time, it's no surprise that coyotes are living in a forest well within Winnipeg's perimeter, said Duncan.
"That's one species that has adapted so well to living in areas close to people, and that includes cities. It's a species that's quite flexible and adaptable in its behaviour," he said.
Both MacDonald and Duncan say everyone needs to stay alert and learn about the creatures around them.
"Knowledge and training are light in the pack and easy to carry," said MacDonald.
That means people need to be aware of their surroundings and avoid wearing earbuds while out in the wilderness. Travel in larger groups and try to keep dogs on a leash or train them to stay close.
Hikers are advised to make noise to let animals know you're there, although MacDonald cautions against the use of deterrents like bells. He often travels in cougar country, and he says bells can attract big cats.
He has also seen mishaps with deterrents like bear spray, which can go off inside a vehicle or blow into the user's face.
Firearms are also unlikely to be effective in close quarters, he said, although he recommends "bear bangers" — small explosives launched from a thin pen-like device that make a loud noise to frighten away aggressive animals.
Learn about animal behaviour
People should also learn about bear behaviour in order to recognize the signs of aggression.
"Typically a predatory bear is going to try [to] circle you and get downwind of you, and pretend it's not looking at you," said MacDonald. "And then if you're not paying attention it'll rush in."
Those bears are usually injured or older bears that have a harder time finding food. Most bears want to avoid people, said MacDonald.
Same goes for coyotes, said Duncan.
"My wife and I live on a quarter section in rural Manitoba. We have a pair of coyotes denning on our property and they had seven pups," he said.
"We just know that when we go back there, we're just very aware of the fact that they're there. And we try to not disturb them. We also try to make sure that they know we're coming."
Encountering animals in the wild doesn't have to be a frightening or dangerous experience, as long as people know how to stay safe, said Duncan.
"You see the connections between you and the land, or the animals in the land," he said. "It's very healthy for you."
With files from Rachel Bergen