Encountering a bear might seem like an adventure for a tourist, safe within the protective shell of a vehicle, but for anyone working outside in a remote area, it can be a terrifying matter of life and death. And for oil and gas workers in Alberta the chances of such an encounter are increasing. Read on to find out why that is, and what you can do to work safely in bear country.

Bears pose an increasing threat

There are a couple of reasons why the threat of bear attacks is an increasing concern:

    1. Human food. When people feed bears, or leave garbage around for foraging bears to find, it creates the potential for aggressive behaviour. “They do not identify individual humans as being a source of food, but associate all humans as a food source,” said Paul Frame, a provincial carnivore specialist with the Government of Alberta. “When a bear becomes food conditioned, it becomes a public safety risk, and often has to be destroyed,” he continued.
    2. Increasing bear populations. The success of a provincial grizzly bear recovery plan has resulted in an increase in numbers from between 700 and 800 in 2010, to somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 right now.

We spoke with Paul to learn more about how to help people and bears co-exist without incident:

Grizzly bears tend to avoid encounters with humans, but more bears on the landscape does increase the probability of encountering a bear. The majority of human/bear encounters end with the bear leaving the scene when it is aware of the people.

Tips for avoiding a bear encounter

If you’re working out in bear country, follow these life-saving tips:

    • Always store or dispose of food in a bear-proof container.
    • Never feed a bear.
    • Travel in groups.
    • Carry bear spray.

Predatory or defensive? Know the difference

If you are unlucky enough to encounter a bear, it’s helpful if you can tell whether the behaviour being displayed is predatory or defensive. A predatory bear will tend to stalk and attack, in which case the best defence is to make loud noises, use bear spray and fight back with stones, sticks or any other weapons or tools you can find. A defensive bear will repeatedly charge and retreat, swat the ground with its paws and make grunting or clicking noises. In this situation, it’s best to appear non-threatening and provide the bear with a way to leave.

Identifying black bears and grizzly bears

Being able to identify the type of bear you’re encountering is also an important safety consideration. This graphic illustrates the differences between black and grizzly bears. To learn about how their behaviour differs, check out: bearsmart.alberta.ca.

Road sharing between industries

Another way to protect bears, said Paul, is for industries such as logging and oil and gas to share roads when they’re working in the same area.

“This practice benefits multiple species such as caribou, bull trout, and grizzly bears,” he said. “With respect to grizzly bears there is a relationship between mortality risk and open road density. Road sharing by different industries should reduce road density and in turn reduce human caused mortality of grizzly bears.”

A word about bears and Fort McMurray

As people return to their homes and workplaces after the wildfires in the Fort McMurray area, black bears could potentially pose a particular threat. Waking up after six months without food, bears are leaving their dens to find that their food sources have been destroyed. This could result in frightened, hungry bears heading into the town in search of food.

Residents should be aware of this threat and be vigilant, as well as ensuring that food is not left anywhere for bears to find or smell.

Will you be working out in bear country? Take our fun wildlife awareness quiz to see if you’re ready for Mother Nature, and check out the bear safety tips in our spring 2015 issue of Frontline Magazine. Be sure to get trained by taking one of our bear awareness and wildlife awareness (including bear awareness) courses.

For a firsthand look at the danger of human/bear interactions, read what two oilfield workers did to narrowly escape a bear.