With the slow start to the season, some of us might have forgotten what summer is supposed to be like. But with the warm weather, it’s also a good time for a reminder about the need to be “bear aware,” say local conservation officers.
There have been multiple sightings of bears and cougars in B.C. in recent weeks with a few close encounters, and it’s important to keep up-to-date on what to do in such situations, said Conservation Officer Rick Dekelver.
Since April, there have been 130 calls from the public about animal disturbances. About 80 to 90 per cent are bear related — the rest are cougars and deer. A lot of the calls are about bears wandering onto properties, and getting into garbage cans.
“The No. 1 attractant is garbage, followed by composting — which is a good thing to do, but we don’t really condone it in areas where bears live and can get into that practice of learning it as a non-natural food.”
The problem is that bears become habituated with the food source and will return for more, said Dekelver.
There are also other attractants that people might not necessarily think about.
“Bird feeders; pet food — people that feed their pets outside or leave food outside; barbecues sometimes that aren’t cleaned on a regular basis — that grease draws them in. You get fruit trees, more in the fall, and if people don’t pick the fruit when it first ripens it becomes overripe and the smell carries.”
Dekelver said bears are opportunistic creatures. Although they might scare off easily at first, if they realize there is no danger they become complacent and take ownership of the food. That can be compounded if the bear sees people retreating, the animal believes it is dominant.
“Our primary goal is to have the bears coexist with people. But unfortunately when they get into these attractants and their behaviour escalates to the point we think they become a threat to human safety, we interact.”
That can mean trapping a bear or, in an extreme case, shooting it like the black bear that was killed by Conservation Officer Peter Pauwels when it wandered into a residential area in Victoria earlier this month.
“Sometimes, before it’s gotten too bad, we have the opportunity to relocate bears, and other times we think it’s gone beyond a certain point where human safety is at risk. Then we don’t feel comfortable moving a bear and running a risk of it coming back with that same behaviour,” he said.
If you find yourself face-to-face with a bear or cougar, Dekelver said the best thing to do is read the situation.
“The first thing you don’t want to do is turn and run — that’s the old adage, and that goes for cougars too.”
Running can cause the animal’s predator/prey response to kick in. Instead, try these tactics:
• Make yourself large. Hold your arms up in the air and talk to the animal while backing away slowly in a safe direction, monitoring how the animal reacts.
• If a bear is persistent and is coming toward you as you walk away slowly, stand your ground so it doesn’t perceive you as being submissive.
• Try scaring the bear by making loud noise.
Another popularized strategy that isn’t recommended is playing dead. An aggressive animal may still attack if you lie motionless, said Dekelver.
With cougars, in a worst case scenario, it can be a good idea to fight back in a defensive manner.
“A lot of people have been successful in targeting (the cat’s) face and nose areas, the soft tissues there, and just getting a cat to realize that maybe this isn’t worth it.”
If you spot any unusual animal activity, call the conservation office anytime at 1-877-952-7277.
“We encourage people (to report) sightings, whether they’re into your garbage or whatever it is. We’ll assess the totality of the circumstances,” said Dekelver. “It might just seem like a sighting to one person but it might be linked to a bear we’ve been looking for that’s a threat to public safety.”