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Parks continues to investigate fatal grizzly bear attack in Banff National Park

“This is a tragic situation and out of respect for the victims and their families, Parks Canada has a responsibility to ensure information is confirmed and accurate before releasing it publicly,” she said in an email Monday morning (Oct. 2).
A sign near the Banff National Park east gates. RMO FILE PHOTO

BANFF NATIONAL PARK – Parks Canada investigators are still piecing together the events that unfolded leading to a fatal grizzly bear attack of two people and their dog in a remote backcountry area of Banff National Park.

It is believed the bear was a very skinny female grizzly. A necropsy – a post-mortem examination on an animal – is being done in order to determine if there are any contributing factors to the fatal attack, such as whether the bear was sick or malnourished.

Parks Canada officials say they won’t be providing an update on the double fatality until Tuesday, Oct. 3; however, it has since been learned the two people were a long-term couple from Alberta, and their dog was also killed in the attack.

Natalie Fay, external relations manager for Banff National Park, said the federal agency is working to confirm further information.

“This is a tragic situation and out of respect for the victims and their families, Parks Canada has a responsibility to ensure information is confirmed and accurate before releasing it publicly,” she said in an email Monday morning (Oct. 2).

Parks Canada received an alert from an inReach GPS device at about 8 p.m. on Friday (Sept. 29) in Red Deer River Valley west of Ya Ha Tinda Ranch.

A human-wildlife conflict team was mobilized but weather delayed the team arriving via helicopter, forcing the crew to travel during the night on the ground to get to the location.

“The response team arrived on-site at 1 a.m. and discovered two deceased individuals,” Fay said in an email.

“While in the area, the response team encountered a grizzly bear that displayed aggressive behaviour, leading Parks Canada staff to euthanize the bear on-site to ensure public safety.”

Sundre RCMP arrived at 5 a.m. to help on scene and move the two people killed by the grizzly bear to Sundre.

The Red Deer and Panther valleys from Snow Creek Summit east to the boundary of Banff National Park and north to Shale Pass were closed. The closure will remain in place until rescinded by Parks Canada.

Kim Titchener, who owns the company Bear Safety and More and is also a family friend of one of the victims, said this is a tragic incident, but a rare event.

“We need to remember that this is rare and that unfortunately attacks like this breed a lot of fear and intolerance for bears,” said Titchener, who has about 18 years experience in bear safety work.

“It’s hard because as human beings, we think, 'oh my gosh, now I’m afraid to go outdoors and I don’t want to do this anymore' … but it’s a call to learn about bear safety.”

Titchener said she didn’t want to speculate on what happened, but spoke to different types of attacks – defensive versus predatory.

Even though she suspects this may sound more predatory, she pointed to a study that looked at brown bear attacks worldwide, which concluded 95 per cent of attacks were defensive in nature.

“So, for example, the bear has cubs, there was a food source, maybe a carcass, or they surprise them at close range,” Titchener said.

“Then the other type, of course, is predatory, and that only represents five per cent with grizzly bears overall.”

That 2019 study, Brown bear attacks on humans: a worldwide perspective, published in Scientific Reports, looked at 664 attacks between 2000 and 2015 from North America (183), Europe (291) and Russia, Iran and Turkey (190).

The researchers recorded an attack rate of 39.6 attacks per year globally: 11.4 attacks/year in North America and 18.2 attacks/year in Europe. The recorded 19 attacks/year in the East was probably underestimated due to the lack of information for several regions.

According to the study, about 85 per cent of attacks resulted in human injury, while only 14 per cent ended in death.

Specifically, 19 deaths occurred in Europe, 24 in North America and 52 in the East, according to the research.   

“Only 14 per cent of the people attacked actually die,” said Titchener. “It is very unusual for it to happen.”

When a bear attack did occur, half of the people were involved in leisure activities such as hiking, picking berries, camping, fishing or jogging. Other activities included guarding livestock, logging, doing wildlife-related fieldwork and hunting.

According to the researchers, almost half of the brown bear attacks recorded worldwide were the result of a defensive reaction of a female protecting her cubs.

This was followed by sudden encounters, presence of a dog, a bear attacking after being shot or trapped, and predatory attacks – nine in Russia and six in North America.

“However, sometimes the scenario was more complex because an attack could have been triggered by more than one factor,” states the study.

“For example, in seven cases, the attack was caused by the interaction of a female with cubs and a dog.”

While she doesn’t know the specific details of this event in Banff National Park, Titchener said dogs sometimes play a role in a bear attack.

“A lot of the cases where we see people get attacked, they’re walking their dog or their dog walks ahead of them and runs into a bear, and we tend to see defensive attacks by both black bears and grizzly bears,” she said.

“The bear just perceives that dog as a threat, they look at them as a carnivore. Genetically, they’re mostly wolf, right? And they’re like ‘get away from my babies’, or maybe there’s a food source, and they feel defensive so they chase the dog.

“Of course, the dog ends up going back to the people and the people end up being perceived as a threat so that could certainly be another scenario – there’s just so many possibilities at this point.”

When bear attacks on people do occur, the researchers associated with the Brown bear attacks on humans: a worldwide perspective study said they elicit considerable media attention, which can lead people to overestimate the risk of an attack and, eventually, cause negative public reactions and opposition towards conservation action.

“One of the most important ways to minimize this type of conflict is to gain a deeper understanding of the circumstances triggering large carnivore attacks, as well as of potential factors associated with such incidents,” states the study.

“It is extremely important to provide managers and the public with accurate and objective knowledge to reduce their occurrence.”

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