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Bear attacks are terrible but rare, says a Red Deer Polytechnic bear expert

‘In most encounters, the bears don’t behave aggressively,’ said biology instructor Sandra MacDougall
A grizzly bear roams an exhibit at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. The deaths of two people from a grizzly bear attack in Banff National Park last weekend are a tragic but rare occurrence, says a Red Deer Polytechnic bear expert. (The Canadian Press/AP/Elaine Thompson)

The deaths of two people from a grizzly bear attack near the headwaters of the Red Deer River are tragic, but rare, says a Red Deer bear expert.

“First of all, I want extend my condolences to the family and friends of the victims,” said Red Deer Polytechnic biology instructor Sandra MacDougall, who feels this was a very unfortunate occurrence.

“Grizzly attacks on people are rare, especially when you think of the sheer number of people who visit bear country each year,” she added. “In most encounters, the bears don’t behave aggressively and they usually move away from people.”

This wasn’t the case on Friday evening when a common-law couple and their dog were killed by a grizzly while hiking and camping within Banff National Park, west of Sundre.

Parks Canada had said in an earlier statement that its dispatchers received an alert at about 8 p.m. Friday from an inReach GPS device about a bear attack west of Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, which is about 200 kilometres southwest of Red Deer.

It immediately sent its Wildlife Human Attack Response Team to the area by ground because weather conditions in the mountains prevented it from using a helicopter. The team arrived at about 1 a.m. Saturday and found the two people dead, the statement said.

Parks Canada said the team encountered a grizzly bear behaving aggressively and killed it to protect the public.

The names of the deceased have not yet been released, but friends describe the pair as experienced outdoors people who might have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Having participated in many bear studies over the years, MacDougall knows that from August until late September or early October, grizzly and black bears are in hyperphagia, a period when they have a significant drive to feed in order to gain the weight needed to sustain them during their hibernation over the winter

Although bears are known to wander widely in their search for food sources, she said this doesn’t mean fall is a more dangerous time of year in bear country than spring or summer. “People should exercise the same precautions when hiking or camping… through all seasons when bears are active.”

Hikers should be alert and make a lot of noise to avoid sudden surprise encounters with bears at close range, she said. “Your voice can be a great way of making noise.”

If possible, they should travel in larger groups and watch for fresh bear scat, tracks, and other signs that an ursine has recently passed through — such as overturned rocks and logs or fresh carcasses.

And dogs should always be kept on a leash as they can unwittingly provoke a bear attack.

MacDougall advised hikers to read information on the Alberta BearSmart website about grizzly and black bear safe practises before heading out into the wilderness. They should also always let people know of their travel plans and “check in” periodically.

As well, she stressed the importance of carrying bear spray: “There is good scientific evidence, based on analyzing decades of bear encounters where it was used, that show it is an effective bear deterrent in most cases.”

Although these safety tips apply to black bears as well as grizzlys, MacDougall noted black bears are generally considered less aggressive and more tolerant of people.

-With files from The Canadian Press