Wilderness advice from a bear expert

Sandra MacDougall sits with the cast of a male Kodiak Island brown bear skull. The cast of the skull is about the size of a small dog, with canine teeth around five centimetres in length.

Red Deer College ecology instructor Sandra MacDougall shows off a cast of a male Kodiak Island brown bear skull.

Sandra MacDougall sits with the cast of a male Kodiak Island brown bear skull.

The cast of the skull is about the size of a small dog, with canine teeth around five centimetres in length.

A bear with a skull this size could reach up 590 kg (or 1,300 pounds) — or easily seven to 10 times the weight of a human.

How bears like this and humans interact in the wild is of particular concern to MacDougall, who has studied bears since she was a master’s student at the University of Calgary in early 1990s.

The Red Deer College ecology instructor recently returned from the Third International Bear-People Conflicts Workshop, held in Canmore last week. The event gathered conservation officers, park wardens, police and bylaw officers, biologists, wildlife managers and others to talk about the methods and strategies they use in their own communities for dealing with interactions between bears and humans, what has worked and what hasn’t worked for them.

“It has been 12 years since we had the last one, and we’ve learned some things, and tried a number of management tools, and it was a chance to get an update on some of that,” she said.

MacDougall acted as both an organizer and a facilitator at the conference, guiding activity and panel discussion.

She said bears are pretty forgiving creatures, but they hate surprises, particularly female grizzly bears with cubs.

As a result hunters or cross country runners who move quickly and quietly through the woods are at higher risk.

Making a little bit of noise as people walk through the woods can mean that they don’t startle a bear and hiking as a larger group is helpful. If people see a carcass it’s best to quietly back away and leave the area. MacDougall said so much of a bear’s year involves gaining enough weight for it to survive to the next year so carcasses are very important to them. She said in general bears don’t want to risk injury or get into physical altercations.

MacDougall said the most important thing is for people to educate themselves before going into bear country. It can be as simple as going to a reliable website on how to react when encountering a bear, as well as checking with local visitor centres in the area, which will post bear activity. The Safety in Bear Country Society offers a number of DVDs for those working or hiking in bear country and the book Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero can give detailed information. MacDougall said she would be willing to meet with community members for a workshop on hiking and camping in bear country if there was enough interest in it.

During the workshop in Canmore, what was really shown to be effective in reducing bear-human conflicts were the variety of education programs that exist in Canada and the United States, including Bear Smart, Bear Aware, WildSmart and others. MacDougall said the biggest message was that the community needs to be heavily involved in any education program or prevention program from the outset for it to be effective because organizers have to be aware of what behaviours people are willing to change and what they aren’t.

Having bear spray as a tool was also shown to be crucial to those going into the woods, although as MacDougall points out it likely won’t need to be used unless someone has already done something else wrong.

In her current research, MacDougall is looking at human-bear interactions at Kluane National Park by going through a database of reports make by visitors and staff. She hopes to have findings from the data in early February 2010.


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