Saskatoon

Wildlife expert says black bears hunting humans is an extreme scenario

Wildlife experts say it's rare, but not unprecedented, to have a black bear stalk and kill a human.

Bad bear encounters typically happen when animal surprised or threatened

Experts say black bears typically want little to do with humans. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

A fatal black bear attack last week in northern Saskatchewan is raising questions about human-bear interactions.

Wildlife experts say it's extremely rare for a black bear to attack a human. When it does happen, it's typically because the person startled the bear or made it feel threatened.

In this framework, the fatal attack on Stephanie Blais outside her family cabin near Buffalo Narrows, Sask., is an outlier. According to her husband, it appeared the bear stalked her and caught her unaware.

There have been 1,070 known human-bear interactions in the province since April. These range from individuals in autos or boats seeing bears to closer encounters in campgrounds.

But there have been only seven recorded incidents in the past six years where someone needed medical attention from a bear encounter. Before last week, the last known death from a bear attack in the province was in 1983.

Blais's death is troubling because it goes against how people believe bears typically behave.

The 44-year-old was on a satellite phone with her father at the time of the attack. Hubert Esquirol said that his daughter did not scream out, or say there was a bear approaching.

Instead, the phone line simply went quiet.

According to Esquirol, his daughter would have been making the call facing south in an open area, as they have to move away from trees for the satellite phone to work. Buffalo Narrows is 433 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.  

The bear, he said, likely would have come up behind her from a forested area with a little pond.

"We speculate that he would have probably jumped up and grabbed her by the neck." 

Katherine Conkin is a wildlife ecologist with the Ministry of Environment. She said that startled black bears will usually physically telegraph their mood.

"They will change their body posture, they may vocalize a little bit, huffing, blowing, they may puff their cheek a little bit," she said.

"In some of these cases, they will bluff charge."

She said there are rare scenarios where black bears will engage in predatory behaviour.

"This would be if they had the intent to actually kill and consume a person," she said.

"You know, a bear will tend to be a bit quieter, they may stalk their prey and approach in a slow, hesitant manner."

Conkin said she could not speak to the specifics of the attack on Blais because the coroner is investigating. This will include a necropsy on the bear's carcass.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dan Zakreski is a reporter for CBC Saskatoon.

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