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Attack by stressed black bear 'not surprising'

A highly stressed black bear that was forced to swim across Lake Louise to avoid hordes of tourists bit a hiker. Parks Canada is monitoring the bear, but there have been no further incidents since the Aug. 23 encounter.
Black Bear
A black bear munches on some greenery in Banff National Park. RMO FILE PHOTO

LAKE LOUISE – A highly stressed black bear trying to avoid throngs of tourists by swimming across Lake Louise last weekend ended up attacking an international visitor, leaving the man with minor injuries.

The 24-year-old man, who was hiking on the horse trail between Mirror Lake and the stables near Chateau Lake Louise, called Parks Canada dispatch about 4:45 p.m. on Friday (Aug. 23) to report a bear was slowly approaching him and not backing off.

“He said the bear came up to him, tried to swipe his leg, and then tried to bite him. He kicked it twice and the bear took off,” said Jon Stuart-Smith, a human-wildlife management specialist for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay.

“He had minor injuries to his lower leg from the bite, although it was really more of a nip. The bear clipped his pants and scraped the skin below, resulting in a scratch from the teeth; there was no puncture.”

The tourist, who wasn’t carrying bear spray, was on the phone with a Parks Canada dispatcher throughout the approximately 20-minute ordeal, giving a play-by-play on what was happening and seeking advice on what to do.

Parks wildlife staff in Lake Louise were alerted immediately and headed up the trail to meet the hiker. The man was assessed by EMS. He did not go to hospital and left. Parks wouldn’t provide details on where he was from, other than to say he was from out-of-country.

Almost 45 minutes before the encounter, the bear ended up on the extremely busy lakeshore trail and swam across the lake, emerging close to the Lake Agnes trailhead before racing off into the forest.

Stuart-Smith said the entire event was probably very stressful for the bear.

“I’m assuming that it got cold and tired fairly quickly and needed to get out, and the quickest location for it to get out was, unfortunately, the place where there was still a lot of people,” he said.

“There were a lot of people right there and not necessarily backing off as soon as we would like or as soon as would have reduced the stress level on the animal.”

Wildlife experts say this bear had already encountered people earlier that morning as it fed on buffaloberries on the Tramline trail, in an area between Moraine Lake Road and Upper Lake Louise. Parks Canada temporarily closed that area at about 9:30 a.m. to give it space and security.

Stephen Herrero, a global expert on bear attacks and safety, said he believes it’s fair to conclude this bear was stressed based on the event of the day, noting bears are already under stress at this time of year as they fatten up for hibernation.

Herrero said following and biting the hiker is a somewhat unusual response by the bear, but not outside the range of behaviour and “it’s definitely not surprising” given the circumstances.

“Though inadvertently and not on purpose, the bear was very clearly harassed trying to get out of the way of tourists, and eventually something flipped in the bear and it decided to follow a person,” said Herrero, a professor emeritus at the University of Calgary.

“I don’t know why the bear made that decision, but suffice to say, it’s a very stressful situation for a bear. A basic analysis of this kind of behaviour, it’s going to be either fight or flight, and this bear I think was exploring its options.”

Kim Titchener, president of Bear Safety & More, said she’s glad the encounter didn’t end up worse than it did.

“It was not the hiker’s fault. It was the wrong place, wrong time and he had no idea that this bear had just gone through this experience,” she said.

“This reminds me of back in the day with Isabelle Dubé. That bear, before it attacked her, was experiencing a lot of stress and people harassing and hazing it.” 

Dubé died on June 5, 2005, on a trail in Canmore. The grizzly, which had been captured and relocated out of the region a week earlier, quickly returned.

Meanwhile, Titchener implored people to give bears space.

“It’s very stressful for them to continue having these close range encounters and when a bear feels boxed in, they are going to feel like human beings are a threat,” she said.

Titchener said she couldn’t say enough about just how important it is to carry bear spray.

“If you have an incident like this, whether it’s a defensive or a surprise encounter, bear spray can make all the difference,” she said.

“In this case, it was a very stressed-out bear and felt threatened by seeing a human. Bear spray would have been a great tool, and instead of getting hurt, he could have sprayed the bear.”

Parks continues to monitor the situation, but notes there have been no further incidents since Aug. 23.

“At this point, given the circumstances of the incident, we’re going to see what behaviour that bear displays in the future before taking any further action,” Stuart-Smith said.

A bear warning is in place for the area, which includes Lake Agnes trail, Plain of Six trail, Fairview Lookout, Saddleback trail, Tramline trail and Louise Creek trail.

People travelling in bear country are asked to travel in groups, make noise while hiking, keep all pets on a leash, carry bear spray and know how to use it; and, maintain a safe distance between you and any bear.

Parks Canada asks that all bear sightings be reported to Banff dispatch at 403-762-1470.