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A black bear and her cub walk through the grass on a ski run on Blackcomb mountain in Whistler, B.C., Friday June 26, 2009. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)
A black bear and her cub walk through the grass on a ski run on Blackcomb mountain in Whistler, B.C., Friday June 26, 2009. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Wildlife

A few surprises in decades-long black bear study Add to ...

A sweeping study chronicling more than a century's worth of deadly encounters with black bears in Canada and the United States is shedding new light on the nature of attacks and dispelling the widely held notion that a sow protecting her cubs is the prime danger.

Fatal black bear attacks were rare from 1900 to 2009 but they disproportionately occurred in Canada, according to an analysis published Wednesday in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Of the 63 people who died in 59 incidents, 44 victims were mauled in Canada. It's not known why, but periodic food shortages due to shorter growing seasons could be a factor.

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Researchers also found that the vast majority of the confrontations weren't the result of chance meetings in the woods, but the outcome of predatory behaviour, nearly always by lone male black bears. Surprisingly, only 8 per cent of the deadly attacks were attributed to mother bears.

Even the world's foremost bear-attack expert, study leader Stephen Herrero, was taken aback by this finding. A professor emeritus at the University of Calgary, Dr. Herrero noted sows will huff loudly, swat the ground and sometimes charge when protecting their young.

"But almost never do they follow through and contact the person," he said. "If they do, they don't take it to the point of trying to kill and eat the person."

Dr. Herrero's examination of black bear attacks offers the most comprehensive look yet at where and why the animals have killed in North America. The study took decades to complete and involved the Massachusetts division of fisheries and wildlife and Brigham Young University in Utah.

Bear-caused fatalities have increased largely in lockstep with the continent's human population growth and subsequent rise of recreational activities. Most of the deadly encounters with bears - 86 per cent - were recorded since 1960.

Nine out of 10 times, the victim was alone or with only one other person. Improperly stored food and garbage was a likely attractant in 38 per cent of the incidents, but there was no evidence a black bear killed to protect a carcass, which has occurred with grizzly bears. In all cases, researchers found that bear pepper spray was not deployed as a measure of defence.

While deadly attacks are not common, recent studies have shown conflicts between humans and black bears are on the rise in many regions of North America. Dr. Herrero said his study underscores the importance of dealing with bears that exhibit predatory behaviour, such as stalking, and warning the public about potential threats.

Many provinces have been promoting education programs and mitigation measures in communities that lie in the heart of bear country. Installing bear-proof trash bins and discouraging bird feeders are some of the deterrents adopted in Revelstoke in the B.C. Rockies.

Some hunters in Ontario believe the province should reinstate the spring black bear hunt to reduce the animal's population and run-ins with people, particularly in northern cottage country. The spring hunt was cancelled in 1999; a fall hunt remains.

"From a public safety standpoint, black bears are an unpredictable, wild animal," said John Kaplanis, executive director of the Northwestern Ontario Sportsmen's Alliance. "They're not the cuddly little teddy bears we see on television and in Walt Disney shows."

But the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources has no plans to reinstate the hunt, said Linda Wall, provincial co-ordinator of the department's Bear Wise program. The province, with an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 black bears, has been tracking incidents since 2004.

Provincial data show reports of human-bear occurrences, which range from sightings to contacts, fluctuate in large part with the availability of food in the wild. Ill-timed frost and a poor berry season can make the difference, Ms. Wall said. There were 7,016 incidents in 2006, when berries were plentiful, but 13,010 incidents in 2009, when significant natural food failures were observed in the Parry Sound area.

"As soon as the bears have trouble finding food in the forest, they will come out looking for food," Ms. Wall said.

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HOW TO AVOID ENCOUNTERING A BLACK BEAR

Make noise when you're in the woods, especially when visibility is restricted or when there's a lot of background noise, such as from a stream or waterfall. Singing, whistling or talking will let bears know you're there and give them a chance to avoid you. Travel with at least two people, and watch for signs of bear activity, such as tracks, claw marks on trees and fresh droppings. If you have a dog, leash it. Wandering dogs could lead a bear to you.

What to do if you run into a black bear

Stay calm. When black bears are caught off guard, they're stressed and usually just want to flee. The bear may stand on its hind legs to get a better look at you. The animal may also salivate excessively, exhale loudly and make popping sounds with its teeth and jaws. Generally, these aren't bad signs: Noisier bears tend to be less dangerous, but don't get closer. Stand still and talk calmly to the bear. If the animal doesn't approach, back away slowly and keep chatting in a quiet, monotone voice. Resist the temptation to run, and don't scream, turn your back on the bear, kneel down or make direct eye contact.

What to do if the bear approaches

Yell and wave your arms to make yourself look bigger. Throw objects at the bear, such as sticks and rocks. Blow a whistle or an air horn, if you have them. These actions may persuade the bear to leave. If you're with others, stay together and make sure the bear has an escape route. If the animal keeps advancing toward you, stand your ground and use bear pepper spray. Black bear attacks are extremely rare. However, when a bear strikes, fight back with everything you have. Don't play dead except in the rare instance a sow is attacking to defend her cubs.

Source: Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources

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