Bears have been getting into all kinds of mischief over the past few weeks in the Lower Mainland, whether it’s brawling on someone’s front lawn, prying into vehicles, or attacking llamas and goats.
There’s nobody better suited to put these ursine escapades in context than world-renowned bear-attack expert Stephen Herrero. A professor emeritus at the University of Calgary, Dr. Herrero is the author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, a definitive study analyzing the past century of bear encounters with humans.
Dr. Herrero spoke with The Globe and Mail about what his research has taught him about bears making forays into cities.
Can you think of another large city that has as many bear incidents as Vancouver?
Anchorage, Alaska, is the only other. Juneau also has many bear incidents, but it’s tiny.
Is this the worst time of year for bears coming into cities?
Yes and no. This time of year they’re coming out of their dens, they haven’t eaten for six months, and the high caloric density foods just aren’t there yet. Things like berries, salmon and nuts. So bears are looking for more than they can get out of the green vegetation.
But the other big time of year is in the fall if there’s a berry crop failure. There are years when there’s not enough berries to keep the bears satisfied enough that they can go into their dens, and so you can get a lot of incidents in the fall, too.
Is it fair to say that most human encounters with bears don’t result in injury?
Absolutely. What has tended to trigger injuries in the last few years, more than before, is people with dogs. The typical scenario has been the dog gets put out, the bear comes into the area, and the owner of the dog hears it barking wildly. The owner runs out to chase the bear off, and the owner gets attacked. We’re getting three or four of these a year, but that’s all over North America.
The other typical circumstance is a bear coming into some kind of food situation, and people trying to chase it off or just bumping into it accidentally.
What kind of bear behaviour usually leads to an attack?
The most recent research I published analyzed 63 fatal attacks by black bears throughout North America between 1900 and 2009. There, the male bears, single bears, were the primary perpetrators. And the majority of the fatal attacks were predacious. The person was stalked, charged, killed, partly eaten and dragged off. Not the kind of thing you like to think about bears doing, and fortunately they don’t do it very often. We’re talking perhaps a million black bears in North America, and a couple of people being killed each year. From a statistical point of view it’s nothing, but if you’re on the receiving end it’s everything.
Are there any big misperceptions about bear attacks you’d like cleared up?
The most tragic one is people playing dead during a predacious attack. Because in that circumstance, the bear just keeps on chewing. Definitely, people need to learn the basics of bear behaviour so they can recognize the difference between a defensive attack, when the bear is feeling threatened and it just takes a bite or two and runs off, versus a predacious attack where the bear is persistent. In a typical defensive attack the bear is making a bunch of noise, snorting and growling, but in a typical predacious attack the bear is silent.
When we go through a period like this of many bear incidents piling up, what do you want people to keep in mind?
What people already know is that for the most part, bears are delightful creatures to watch and be around. They’re interesting and inspirational. But they can cause a bunch of problems if you don’t treat their needs with respect.
This interview has been edited and condensed.