Spring in Waterton (Photo by NCC)

Spring in Waterton (Photo by NCC)

The importance of being bear safe

Black bear (Photo by Allison Haskell)

Black bear (Photo by Allison Haskell)

Mitchell Zoratti is the 2018 summer technician in the Castle-Crowsnest region of southern Alberta. He is studying agricultural management at Olds College and is glad for the opportunity to work with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), as it allows him to experience conservation in ways new to him and his family.

Bears in southern Alberta are not a rare sight. Therefore, it is important to understand them and stay safe if you see one while you're enjoying the great outdoors.

Did you know that a grizzly bear’s claws can grow up to six inches long? Or that a grizzly bear eats almost 20,000 calories a day to survive? Bears can be quite an intimidating species. With their amazing sense of smell, a bear will know where you are long before you see it. For me, these facts are plenty of incentive to leave these beasts alone and respect the space they need to survive. Don’t get me wrong; bears are amazing creatures, but they can also be dangerous, so you need to ensure that you stay safe while in bear country. 

I am a firm believer that as long as you respect a bear’s space they will respect yours, but this is not always the case. Take, for example, a few years back when a group of friends and I were out hunting. We must have come too close to a particular bear’s den or feeding area. In the blink of an eye, a trio of young grizzly bears shot out of the bush in our direction. 

As we were young and without much bear experience, nobody knew how to react to the sudden charge. Looking back on this, we could have been in serious danger and nobody even had bear spray out! This is why I believe that it is so important to learn about bears so that you may are ready if such a thing happens to you.

On that day, luckily for us the bears were young and only trying to spook us as they veered off into the bush at the last second before impact with us (known as a bluff charge). What an experience!

After being slightly afraid to go anywhere by myself for the next few days, I realized that those bears must have been just as scared — if not more — than we were in that instant. We had stumbled upon each other and as a result both parties were surprised.

After that particular experience, I have always taken extra precautions to not disturb bears or their areas. Here are a few of my go-to bear safety tips when in bear country.

Rule one: Be bear aware. It’s simple but effective. Understand that you are walking through bear habitat and that you need to respect their space. Do research on bear behaviour or take a bear safety course. Understanding bears can help you determine how a one might react in a situation.

Rule two: When hiking in bear country, always carry bear spray and know how to use it. This is one of the most effective tools in defending yourself in a bear encounter/attack. Although bear spray is quite simple to use, it is recommended that you take a course covering its basic use and safety. This will also help you gain a level of confidence and composure in a tense situation.

Rule three: My most important rule: Always make noise! Although a bear can smell you from miles away, be sure that you are making enough noise that it can determine what you are, and have plenty of time to get out of the area. An encounter with a bear that is aware of your presence will be much safer than any surprise encounter.

Rule four: When in bear country, think about hiking in a group, as groups naturally make more noise and appear larger in size if approached by a bear.

Rule five: When backcountry camping, always remember to pack away all items that may attract a bear (food, toiletries, camp stove, bug spray, sunscreen, etc.). Also note that your cooking area and washing area should be separate from your sleeping area because smells tend to linger in the air or on surfaces. Keep these spaces a minimum of 150 feet apart.

These are not all the rules of bear safety, just a handful of what I think are the most important ones. There are many resources for those interested in learning about bear safety before venturing out themselves. I suggest checking out the Alberta BearSmart website. You can find lots of great information there!

The last thing to keep in mind is this: Bears are almost always more afraid of you than you are of them. So respect their space and understand what to do should you encounter a bear. Don’t let fear ruin your love of the outdoors. Happy hiking.

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