Grizzlies not just a high elevation species

Anyone who lives near bear habitat should be aware of the basics of bear safety.

  • Feb. 12, 2013 7:00 p.m.

Carolyn Grant

One thing Susan Bond and Peter Moody have come to understand since an encounter with a grizzly sow and her cubs injured them last November, is that they walked into a situation that had trouble written all over it.

Conservation Officer Jared Connatty said it was a triple whammy of circumstances — surprising the bear at very close quarters, presenting a threat to her two cubs and walking near the carcass of a deer killed by the sow.

Wildlife biologist Michael Proctor, who has made the study of grizzlies his career, called it a “perfect storm” of circumstances. Proctor, who lives in Kaslo, has been researching grizzly bears in the Kootenays since 1995 and  earned a PhD in 2003 from the University of Calgary.

He says the bears encountered by Susan and Peter were likely from the Rocky Mountain population, which is at fairly healthy numbers, unlike the grizzly population in the Purcells, which is a bit lower.

Given they were on the east side of the highway, they were likely from the Rockies, he said.

“Generally, the Columbia Trench is probably a barrier for bears, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see them at lower elevations.”

Proctor says that while many people consider grizzlies a high-elevation species, that is not the case.

“Bears like low elevations — if no one is there. In parts of the Flathead where there are no humans, they live in lower elevation valleys. Bears are not just a high-elevation species. They use the whole land, bottom to top. Bears have just learned to stay away from human-populated areas in most cases.”

There are times of year where grizzlies are more apt to be seen at lower elevations. They come down from the high country in the spring to feed, he says. And it is not that uncommon to see them lower down in the fall either, especially if it’s been an uneven berry year.

“Normally a female with cubs will den in October, but it’s not that unusual to see them later in the fall, even as late as November 25. There are variations in everything, including the behaviour of bears.

“Bears have sex in June but there is a delayed implantation. If they don’t gain 20 to 23 per cent body fat over the summer, they absorb the egg. Maybe this year this particular sow didn’t get fat enough. And those two kids would be sucking her dry.

“It sounds like a horrible thing, what happened. That’s life in the Kootenays. It’s very rare, but it can happen. I catch bears for a living, and put radio collars on them. I know they have immense power.”

Proctor is pleased to hear that the Conservation Officers and Susan and Peter didn’t want the bears tracked and put down.

“I am impressed that the bears were left alive,” he said. “It speaks to tolerance. It’s good to see.”

Since the attack, Susan and Peter have wondered if they could have done things differently.

“There were certain things we did not do,” Peter said. “We didn’t have bear spray. It wouldn’t have saved Susan from the initial attack, but if I had it, when the bear turned on me, I could have used it.

“Calling out to let bears know you are around is important. Go with a group, a minimum of four people. You’re not hunting, you don’t need to be stealthy, your presence needs to be known.”

He also says taking a cell phone along so you can call for help is a good idea, despite the fact that coverage can be spotty at times.

In the search for better understanding of the attack, Susan met in late January with Dr. Stephen Herrero, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at the University of Calgary, and one of the world’s leading authorities on grizzly and black bear ecology, behaviour and attacks. Herrero has conducted scientific research on bear-human interactions for 35 years, and his book Bear Attacks Their Causes and Avoidance is the standard reference on the subject. He has also contributed to the video Staying Safe in Bear Country.

“Dr. Herrero told me that anyone who lives in bear habitat – and that can be anywhere that provides natural food sources for bears – should be aware of the basics of bear safety,” Susan said.

“His approach is based on understanding bear behaviours, which can be fairly predictable depending on circumstances and species. For instance, you have to know whether an attack is defensive or predatory, or if you’re facing a black bear or a grizzly. And he stressed that people need to practice defensive measures until they’re second nature. Otherwise you default to instinct, like I did in trying to run away.

“In our case, because we were in what we think of as our own backyard, we were oblivious to the thought of a grizzly attack,” she said. “When we hike the high country, we are always aware, always carry bear spray, make noise. But so many more people recreate and work in the bush at low elevations than higher up.

“So I think the message is, it doesn’t matter where you are — front or backcountry — you must be aware and prepared for a bear encounter.”

Susan and Peter discovered that in the days leading up to and immediately after the attack, grizzly tracks were seen by people out walking in the Wycliffe area, a few kilometres southwest of their LD Ranch Road home.

“Maybe we need a neighbourhood watch of some sort, a way to let others know if a bear is seen in the settled rural areas, something like Wildlife Aware in town,” Susan said. “If any good can come out of what happened to us, it would be a heightened sense of bear awareness and bear safety.”