Fatal black bear attack a safety reminder for outdoor workers

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Ontario is bear country – learn from these hair-raising videos

Hazard Alert: Aggressive bear charges worker

Despite her co-workers’ attempts to drive the animal off, an outdoor worker was mauled to death by a black bear last month in Alberta. With this recent fatal attack, Ontario workers need to be mindful of similar bear dangers when working outdoors. Ontario is bear country and from spring until October is prime time for bears to forage. These large and hungry creatures spend nearly all their waking hours in search of food. 

What attracts bears to your location?

'Please don't feed the bears' highway signChances are you live near bears, and according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), the leading causes of bear problems are residential garbage, food smells (including dirty barbecues), and fruit trees. Simply by leaving pet food out at night, having food residue on your barbeque grill, or storing household garbage in poorly sealed containers, you could be inviting bears to forage for leftovers. 

Bears remember geographic food locations – for years

Highly intelligent, bears easily learn where food sources can be found and use their keen sense of smell to seek them out. Bears will travel more than 100 kilometres to a known food source like a berry patch or a stand of beech trees, and return to these same locations year after year, according to the MNRF. Bears are always looking for new food sources, including your garbage or the contents of your cooler. Once they determine that food can be found at your house or campsite, they will revisit again and again.

Immediate danger of remote worksites

The presence of bears in camps or worksites presents an immediate danger to workers and also compromises the bear’s natural instincts to look for food in the wilderness. The prospect of an easy meal is hard for a bear to resist; and if your worksite inadvertently provides this, you’ll soon have an unwanted and dangerous guest on your list of visitors. Once a wild bear makes the transition to nuisance bear often the only solution is to have the bear destroyed or relocated. Deterring the presence of bears is beneficial to both humans and bears.

How to work safe in the field

Worksites and camps located in remote areas should have a program in place to deter bear encounters that includes:

  • A risk assessment to determine the initial location of the camp: Bears are attracted to berry patches, as well as mountain ash, oak and beech.
  • Annual training for staff on the risks of working in bear country
  • A system to manage food and waste including odours. A variety of bear-resistant containers are available on the market; this can include a heavy polycarbonate container with a screw-on lid.
  • Aversion and deterrent procedures if a bear is spotted entering a camp, such as:

o  Temporary electric fencing to surround a camp or worksite
o  Bear spray and air horns available to workers

  • Aversion and deterrent procedures when working outside of camp, such as:

o  Bear spray, whistles and/or air horns provided to workers
o  Working in a group or in close proximity to other workers
o  Where possible, avoid carrying food and eating outside of camp or a vehicle
o  Make noise when travelling through the bush on foot

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Reminder: What to do if you encounter a bear

Some encounters may be more dangerous than others, so it's important to recognize the signs, and know what you can do to protect yourself, warns the Ministry of Natural Resources.

Know the language of black bears:

If you by chance encounter a black bear it may:

  • Stand on its hind legs to get a better look at you.
  • Salivate excessively, exhale loudly, and make huffing, moaning, clacking and popping sounds with its mouth, teeth and jaws.
  • Lower its head with its ears drawn back while facing you.
  • Charge forward or swat the ground with its paws. This is also known as a bluff charge.

Generally, the noisier the bear is, the less dangerous it is provided you don’t approach the bear. These are all warning signals bears give to let you know you are too close. When bears are caught off guard, they are stressed, and usually just want to flee.

What to do – Surprise and close encounters:

  • Remain calm. Do not run. Stand still and talk to the bear in a calm voice.
  • Arm your pepper spray. Be very careful to stand downwind, and don’t rub your eyes because you could temporarily impair your vision and be unable to fight off the attack.
  • Do not try to get closer to the bear.
  • If the bear does not get closer to you, slowly back away, talking to the bear in a quiet, monotone voice. Do not scream, turn your back on the bear, run, kneel down or make direct eye contact.
  • Watch the bear and wait for it to leave.
  • If the bear does not leave or approaches you, yell and wave your arms to make yourself look bigger. Throw objects, blow a whistle or an air horn. The idea is to persuade the bear to leave.
  • If you are with others, stay together and act as a group. Make sure the bear has a clear escape route.
  • If the bear keeps advancing, and is getting close, stand your ground. Use your bear pepper spray (if the bear is within seven metres) or anything else you can find or use to threaten or distract the bear
  • Do not run or climb a tree.

About attacks:

Black bear attacks are extremely rare. A black bear may attack if: 

  • It perceives you to as a threat to itself, its cubs, or its food. This is a defensive bear that wants more space between you and it. Such attacks are exceedingly rare although a bear’s aggressive display may seem to suggest otherwise.
  • It is a predatory bear. These bears are also very rare. Predatory attacks usually occur in rural or remote areas. Predatory bears approach silently, and may continue to approach regardless of your attempts to deter them by yelling or throwing rocks. See videos below for examples.

What to do if an encounter results in an attack:

  • Use your pepper spray – cautiously; ensure you’re downwind.
  • Fight back with everything you have.
  • Do not play dead except in the rare instance when you are sure a mother bear is attacking you in defense of cubs.

Although experts say the majority of black bears are frightened by humans and avoid contact wherever possible, there are still rare predatory attacks of which outdoor workers need to be aware. From a Yukon mineral exploration worker who unknowingly walked past the den of a mother bear and her cubs, to a New York toddler sitting in a parked stroller near the family cottage, a Wikipedia list of North American bear attacks emphasizes – regardless of age, gender, and activity – the importance of remaining alert and prepared while outdoors in bear season. 

Photos courtesy Ministry of Natural Resources

Free Resources

Hazard Alert: Aggressive bear charges worker – please download, print, post and encourage discussion in your workplace.

Safeplanting.com – Online tree planting training program includes module on animals and other natural hazards.

Bear Wise website provides information on reducing preventable causes of human-bear conflicts in Ontario – Ministry of Natural Resources: 

Videos

North America is home to about 750,000 black bears and an average to two people are killed each year. Here are some hair-raising videos that will give you an idea of the rare predatory, stalking behaviour to look out for.

 

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Black bears | Maneaters – informative Animal Planet video about the animal

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Beware of predatory black bears – Extremely informative and helpful video with University of Calgary professor discusses new study of fatal black bear attacks in North America and patterns of behaviour that can alert you to potential attack.

 

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