Wild Encounters and Attacks: Advice from an Expert

wild encounters

Kevin Wilson, CEO of Wild Encounters Ltd has generously shared some useful information about bear encounters. He gives valuable recommendations about bear safety, as well as information about the courses his company offers. His company is the only one that has a charging bear attack simulator, great hands-on practice!  Want to reach Kevin or Wild Encounters Ltd directly? Like them on Facebook, or visit their webpage

What is the difference between a grizzly bear and a black bear? Is one more dangerous than the other?

This can be answered in several different ways. Genetically (Grizzly Bears = Ursus arctos horribilis and Black Bears = Ursus americanus) and behaviourally, grizzlies and black bears are very different. A lot can be said, but to simplify, Grizzly bears are an apex predator. They require wilderness spaces and are, at least for the most part, reclusive in their day-to-day lives. Most people quickly identify the shoulder hump on their back, an often grizzled appearance to the face, a generally bigger/wider head, and a more square front foot with much longer claws than those of a black bear.

Inland Grizzly bears (those that reside in Alberta), can range in color (pelage) from brown to caramel, and even almost a shade of black. The classic silver-tipped hairs of a brown grizzly bear with darker legs is what most people think of when consider the appearance of a Grizzly bear, but this can vary substantially. Once considered an an-risk population in Alberta, their numbers are now thriving – in fact, escalating beyond the carrying capacity of many habitat areas, to the extent that Alberta Environment and Parks authorities have been actively considering options for population control. While authorities really don’t know for sure, some biologist speculate that we have a very conservative population of approximately 2,000 Grizzlies in Alberta. They inhabit the mountains, foothills, and western portions of our boreal forest.

In comparison, black bears are the most common and widely distributed of our bears here in Alberta. They are certainly one of our province’s top predators, but they are generally more adaptable and can easily and comfortably coexist in close proximity to people … which commonly puts them at risk of habituation. Their appearance is distinguishable by a typically smaller head, longer face and nose, more rounded front pad and shorter claws.

Black bears do not have a distinguishing shoulder hump. Their colour (pelage) can range from black to cinnamon, chocolate brown, blonde … and just about anything in between. Difficult to determine with certainty, based on the most recent population counts, Alberta Environment and Parks estimates Alberta’s black bears number approximately 40,000. They are abundant in our mountains, foothills, boreal forest and even much of the parkland areas in Alberta.

Both Grizzly bears and Black bears can be dangerous. Most often, they want nothing to do with people, however they should always be treated with the utmost respect and caution. The only thing predictable about bears is that they can be unpredictable.

Grizzly bears certainly have a more ominous, and even ferocious reputation, but both grizzlies and black bears are predatory wildlife species, capable of inflicting serious injury and even killing a person. The best thing to do is leave them alone and give them their space. Statistically, more injuries and deaths resulting from bad encounters by grizzlies are a result of defensive behaviour – in other words, a Grizzly that feels threatened, or is protective a food source or its young. In direct contrast, statistically more injuries and deaths resulting from bad encounters by black bears are a result of predatory or ‘non-defensive’ behaviour. These are situations in which the bear wasn’t defending anything – it intended to hurt or kill the victim. In situations where the bear could be terminated and an autopsy conducted, a recent study found that over 94% of those Black bears had some form of encephalitis (in other words, something wasn’t right in their head).

Grizzly on Ice; Photo Credits: Teresa Chang

Why is it so important to carry bear spray?

Bear spray is a highly effective non-lethal tool that can be used to fend off bear attacks. It should only be used as a last line of defense. Extreme caution should be exercised by anyone deploying bear spray. Familiarizing yourself with how to use it, and its capabilities and limitations is an absolute must. Statistically, reports suggest that high quality bear spray is 99% effective in deterring an attack the first time a bear is sprayed. Likewise, it has been reported that if the same bear is sprayed a second time, it can be only 50% effective. By the third incident, if that same bear is sprayed, it has been reported to be relatively ineffective. Bottom line – bear spray should only be used as a last line of defense.

What would you say to someone who was afraid to hike or camp because of bears?

Maintaining a healthy respect for bears is always a good thing. An irrational fear of bears is not. Much like flying on a commercial airline and being fearful of a crash, the chances of a bear attack are extremely low. Even still, with our growing predatory wildlife populations, it is important to be prepared for an encounter. Properly equipping yourself with knowledge, and understanding how to interpret and respond accordingly, will give you confidence and the ability to make smart decisions should the need arise. Most encounters end positively, but being prepared could save your life.

What are the signs of an aggressive bear? Should people act differently depending on the mood of the animal?

Bears, regardless of their attitude or posture, should always be respected. The best plan is always avoidance. Give them their space so that they don’t feel a need to defend themselves, their food, or their young. Aggressive bears exhibit a wide range of behaviours, but a few simple things to be mindful of include posture and vocalizations. Huffing, clicking their jaws, guttural moaning, yawning, swatting the ground, bluff charges, slow quartering, and hair standing up on the back of their neck are just a few of the things to watch for.

This requires a much more detailed explanation and potentially a modified response depending on what is actually occurring – remember each situation requires interpretation –  but the general guideline when faced with a defensive encounter, is to back away and talk to the bear in a calm voice. If the bear continues to advance, stand your ground. If necessary and available, use your bear spray. If it makes contact and attacks, lie on the ground face down, lock your hands around the back of your neck and protect your head with your arms. Spread your legs for stability. If the bear rolls you over, continue rolling to get back on your stomach face down. You may experience some injuries, but if it truly is a defensive attack, then it should back off once the perceived threat is gone.

However, in a non-defensive encounter – one in which the bear is NOT defending young or food or itself, and it is predatory in nature – always face the bear, try to get out of its way, make yourself as big as possible, use a firm and authoritative voice and yell at it (don’t scream), grab anything available (i.e a stick, rock, etc.) that you can use to protect yourself. Make sure it knows you are NOT an easy target. When appropriate, if it is available, use your bear spray. If the bear persists and makes contact, DON’T play dead in a ‘non-defensive’ attack situation. Remember, you will be fighting for your life!

If people wanted to learn hands on about bear and wildlife safety, could they take a course with you? If so, what would they learn?

Yes, we provide a basic bear awareness course and an Industrial Predator Awareness and Conflict Management Training Course. We also offer the Canadian Firearms Safety Course. Our courses are comprehensive. They cover theory and practical hands on training with bear spray, bangers, and firearms (if desired). We address the top five predatory wildlife species in western Canada (Grizzly bear, Black bear, cougar, wolf, coyote). We also cover ecology, seasonal considerations, industrial considerations, camping considerations, identifying and handling different types of encounters and attacks, and hands on practice with sprays. 

Is there any other information you would like to share? If there was one thing you hope people would take away from this post, what would that be?

We are the only company in Canada with a charging bear – attack simulator. Course participants experience, firsthand, what it is like to be charged by a life-size 3D bear while discharging inert spray. For more information, visit www.wildencountersltd.com. If you have a group that is interested in taking one of our courses, or if you company requires wildlife awareness or conflict management training and services, give us a call at 780.913.1021.

Disclaimer: Wild Encounters Ltd. provides advice and training services to better equip employees and the public in handling wildlife encounters and attacks. It is understood and conveyed that all wild animals are unpredictable and sometimes dangerous, no two encounters or attacks are the same, and that every individual must exercise common sense and discretion to appropriately respond in each situation. Wild Encounters Ltd. does not communicate absolutes, but rather recommendations and suggested guidelines based on experiences and proven strategies.

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