Beware of bears

With bears out in full force before winter hibernation, as shown by the recent Hudson's Hope bear attack and three reported bear sightings in urban areas of the Peace Region in the last few weeks, wildlife experts say now is a good time for everyone to be reminded of what to do to prevent a bear encounter - and what to do if it can't be prevented.

"This is the time of year when bears are searching out food sources to fatten up their fat stores and their carbohydrate stores, so they can make it through the hibernation in the winter when they den up," said Joel Kline, a provincial conservation officer based in Fort St. John.

The first attack to be confirmed this year in the Peace Region happened last weekend, when a 60-year-old man who was hunting alone in Butler Ridge Provincial Park, just outside of Hudson's Hope, was attacked by a grizzly bear.

The man sustained injuries to his face and upper and lower body, but he was able to drive himself to get help. The hunter was airlifted to Fort St. John Hospital before being sent to an Edmonton hospital, where is in stable condition.

Sgt. Shawn Brinsky, a conservation officer for the South Peace zone, said grizzly bears - the type responsible for the recent attack - are typically far more dangerous than black bears.

"Humans and black bears seem to co-exist typically fine as long as each are cautious of each other," he said. "Grizzly bears do have a tendency to attack for a number of reasons. It's protection of young, territorial surprise, protection of a food source."

Not only are grizzlies more likely to provoke humans, but they are also far larger and more aggressive in a fight.

"So when that contact does happen, the injuries regularly result in being more severe and more traumatic," Brinsky said.

However, experts did share some steps that can be taken to avoid a worst-case scenario like what happened last weekend:

First, if you plan to go out into the wilds for some hiking or camping, try to gather as many people as possible to go with you. "The more the merrier," Kline said.

"If you are in a larger group, you are going to look larger, and a bear is going to be less inclined to try to find out what you are," he said. "And If you have kids make sure they don't venture off too far. Make sure they stay with the group as close as possible."

Also, before leaving, make sure any food you take is tightly packed and sealed.

"If you are going to leave the food at any time, I'd be trying to hang that food up a tree if I could, especially if you are overnighting in the bush," said Brinsky. "If you are overnighting, try to sleep away from where you are cooking."

Lastly, before you go, make sure you bring with you a bear bell or whistle, which can be purchased at most stores that sell camping gear. You can also bring bear spray, which also can be purchased at outdoor stores, should you need it.

Once arriving at the forest, Kline says to use bear bell long before before you even see a bear. "I'd be using [it] as soon as I started my walk into the wild or into the forest that I was going," he said. "Sometimes I whistle to myself, or talk loudly, or use the words 'Hey Bear' to notify them."

With bear bells, "You can just attach them - they have a Velcro strap that you can attach to your backpack or to your walking pole and they just jingle like Santa Claus's bells on his sleigh as you're walking through the bush. It's just a way of notifying the animals that you are coming through, and most animals will want to avoid human contact so they will leave the area before you even know that the animal is there."

That said, if luck is just not on your side, and you find yourself face to face with a big bad bear there are strategies you can use.

"Talk loudly to the bear," Kline said. "Usually people say 'Hey bear, hey bear' and walk away slowly as they are still facing the bear.

"There's a chance you might get bluff charged. You'll never know if it's going to be a bluff until the last minute, but if you turn and run they'll be a chance that they might try to chase you thinking that you are a deer or a moose or some other kind of game animal that they might think is prey.

The other strategy is bear spray, although Kline said many hikers who buy it don't know how to use it properly.

"It's not meant to spray onto clothes or onto a tent as a deterrent," he said. "It is meant to be sprayed directly into the face of the animal as it's very close to you, or in charging fashion. It's meant to hit their eyes and their nose, and they breathe and it gets into their lungs."

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