VOHRINGER: The skinny on bear attacks

By on June 1, 2017
Herald file photo of a young black bear.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column included the claim that the vast majority of attacks are carried out by mother bears defending their young. There is not conclusive evidence to support this assertion, so it has since been removed. 

The recent bear attack on a jogger just outside Merritt at the Norgaard lookout area has created quite the stir within our community. Many were shocked at the fact that it happened in relative proximity of the town, in an area daily frequented by hikers and dog walkers.

According to conservation officers this has been a deliberate attack, not a defence attack. In other words, this bear was hunting a human. Fortunately, the jogger walked away from this encounter with minor injuries. The lookout and surrounding hiking trails were briefly closed to all public access but have since been reopened.

While attacks by black bears are relatively rare and bears actively hunting humans are even rarer, they have occurred more frequently over the past few years. The B.C. government reports that so far this year, there has been an “upswing” in bears attacks.

There are three reasons why bears attack humans.

A number of attacks are carried out by mother bears defending their young. This happens when people get to close to bear cubs or accidentally walk between cubs and the mother.

If a bear is surprised by humans the animal may attack or run away. These attacks are usually abandoned as soon the person creates a safe distance from the bear.

Far worse are bear attacks carried out by males that actively pursue humans with the full intent to kill them. These animals are hunting and stalking humans, often for considerable distances. These are the situations that can lead to injury or worse for the victim, as the bear is determined to make contact with the human.

But why have bear attacks become more frequent?

There are two reasons. Over the past few years the provincial black bear population has shown a sharp increase. With their numbers estimated at 150,000, B.C. has the reputation of having the largest black bear population in the world. Black bears are notoriously territorial and with the population growing, young male bears will have to look for new territories to call their own, bringing them ever closer to human inhabited areas.

The other reason is that more people are discovering the outdoors as a refuge from hectic everyday life; camping hiking, hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreational actives are enjoying a renewed and growing popularity. More bears and more people result in more bear/human conflicts.

The following advice and tips are not guaranteed to eliminate bear conflicts but will go a long way to avoid them. There is not one single measure that applies to all bears. For example, while the discharge of pepper spray may stop an attacking bear in its tracks, this same defence tactic may — in another bear — trigger an even more fierce attack.

The same is true for announcing your presence to the bears in the area to give them a chance to walk away. This works very well in most cases but in some rare cases it might be like ringing the dinner bell. Still, for me, making noise is still the best defence against bear attacks. Given that many bear attacks are carried out by animals that have been startled by the presents of humans, letting them know you’re in the area is always a good idea.

Wear bear bells, sing or talk loudly. Bears have a distinct dislike of dogs; be extra vigilant if you take your dog with you on a wilderness trip and keep it always on a leash. Avoid dense undergrowth, high grasses and other dense vegetation. These are the places where bears retreat to rest and sleep. Stay in the open where you have a good view of your surroundings; make a point of regularly surveying the area all around you for bears.

If you see a bear or encounter fresh sign slowly back out. Never run — the bear will chase you.

Avoid walking near known bear food sources such as berry bush patches, wild rose bushes and clover patches. Whenever possible, take a partner along on your outdoor trips. Always carry approved bear pepper spray with you. Bear spray is a good defence against attacks and has been proven to work very well in over 90 per cent of attacks, even against grizzlies. The only downside to this product is that you have to be upwind of an attacking bear, if not the wind will blow the bear spray in your face and eyes rendering you unable to do anything but scream in agony.

An old useless advice still in circulation today is to play dead when a bear attacks.

That is very bad advice. Bears are opportunistic feeders, meaning they eat dead animals, and humans, too. Playing dead could definitely get you killed.

If the bear is upon you and makes contact, fight back with everything you have at your disposal, use a knife, walking stick, a stout branch, or whatever you have within reach that could serve as a weapon. This situation is no time to be concerned about the welfare of the bear. Your sole goal in this situation is to inflict as much pain, even injuries, to the head of the bear as possible to discourage it from seriously harming or killing you.

As a final advice on avoiding bear/human conflicts it is a good idea to obtain and study the bear safe brochure the B.C. government publishes. Every recreational outdoor user should be familiar with how to behave in bear country.

Othmar Vohringer lives in the Nicola Valley. He is an animal behaviourist and outdoor writer for hunting magazines in Canada and the U.S.


  1. Timothy Martindale

    June 2, 2017 at 10:17 am

    This is a great article. I really hope that grad’s and other younger adults get a chance to read this because so far when talking to young people, they all laugh and say ” Oh the bear is more afraid you ” but that’s just not the case. I have a young adult daughter and it freaks me every time I hear she’s going camping or just hiking. Thankfully she’s aware of her surroundings and what kind of damage an animal such as bear can do so she’s always on her toes.
    Early on when she was around 12 I guess, we were fishing at Marquart lake sp? and a black bear started stalking us from around the side of the lake. If we hadn’t gotten to my truck and just ignored that bear, it would have been a serious situation because the bear eventually came up from behind where we just fishing not minutes before so clearly we did the right thing.
    Anyways good article very informative to say the least.

    • Chuck Bartlebaugh

      June 2, 2017 at 6:46 pm

      It it against the law to use pepper spray on bear in the USA only bear spray can be used. Bear spray does not make bears angry it disables all of its scenes Eyes, nose, ears it makes it hard for the bear to breath swallow taking oxgen in for the bears heart and musicales keeping it from charging or attacking. People have served bear attacks by playing dead with both black and grizzly bears.

  2. Gary

    June 7, 2017 at 2:40 pm

    Othy’s never had a bear/human conflict. Come to think of it? Othy’s never even had a deer/human conflict. Or elk. Or moose.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *