Would you know what to do if you encountered a bear? Do you know how to avoid meeting a bear in the woods? Do you know how to keep yourself and your surroundings safe from a bear?
I am a long time Yukoner and I was convinced I could confidently answer yes to all three challenges. But when WildWise Yukon knocked on my door, I was compelled to review what I knew.
Heather Ashthorn is the executive director of WildWise Yukon, a group that promotes a safe living environment for wildlife and people through education, property audits and aversive conditioning. Property audits involve going door-to-door to talk with residents to make sure that any attractants on their properties are secure. Aversive conditioning is an attempt to teach both bears and humans correct behaviours to reduce conflicts.
WildWise goes door-to-door to talk with residents to make sure that any attractants on their properties are secure. They encourage us to store garbage, outdoor compost, freezers, meat smokers, as well as gas and oil products, indoors or in a secure and locked shed. Barbecues should be cleaned regularly and the grease cans removed. WildWise stresses that it is our responsibility to reduce attractants wherever we can.
Yukon Youth Conservation Corps (Y2C2) made up of Yukon university students, is helping WildWise install signs at trailheads around the territory. They are working to reduce human/wildlife conflict, encourage change in human behavior, and increase education, outreach and research. Watch for them working on the Skagway Road this summer going door to door and installing sign.
The entire project, including managing attractants, conservation officer assistance, engaging with the public works in conjunction with the Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board. Funding is through the Yukon Fish and Wildlife Enhancement Trust Fund and provides for a shoestring budget that allows for a mere 15 hours of work a week. WildWise is Yukon based in Whitehorse, but is expanding to other Yukon communities. In this, their fifth year, work is expanding to include the Southern Lakes pilot project. Residents in Carmacks can also expect to see these enthusiastic young people this summer.
Y2C2 staff Aislinn McManus, Aline Halliday, Soleil Stimson and Harlan Schulze will join Heather Ashthorn at the Atlin Music Fest, the Yukon River Quest and in various schools to promote Bear Safety.
Now I know how to keep bears uninterested in my yard. But what if I venture out? Every Tuesday, I join the ElderActive group on a hike on one of the many trails around Whitehorse. There are nine to 15 of us, sometimes as many as 25, and we follow each other, pretty much single-file. Some hikers carry bear spray, some wear bear bells, and most chat animatedly as they walk.
As well, Freya, a friendly, gentle dog often accompanies us. As far as I’m concerned, a bear would have to be completely deaf not to have sensed us long before we came around a corner. But if it didn’t, would our nifty deterrents have any effect?
According to Environment Yukon, bear spray is a type of pepper or capsaicin spray under pressure that is aimed at a bear to irritate the mucous membranes around its nose and mouth. The bear will be temporarily distracted and completely focused on its discomfort.
However, it is necessary to be quite close to the bear in order for the spray to reach its head and have any effect. The danger is that it may take the user time to get the container aimed and ready to spray, the user may not be close enough to the bear, or wind may blow the burning spray back onto the user. This deterrent is most effective if the bear is close and the user is experienced in its use.
Bear bangers make a loud gunshot style noise. They are intended to scare bears away without harming them, and are used by aiming them into the air and not at the bear. Bangers require a fire launcher and need expertise to use. The danger, aside from user injury, is having the flash and noise go off behind the bear and having the bear run directly toward the user.
Bear bells are the cheapest to buy and the easiest to use. You simply attach them to a loop in your clothing and set off on your hike, the rhythmic jingling accompanying your every step. However, a bear may not associate the sound of bear bells and whistles with a human. It, instead, may be curious and come to investigate. Is that why the nickname for bear bells is “bear calls”?
Bear bangers, bear spray and bear bells can be obtained at any outdoor, camping or hunting store. But be advised that both bangers and spray cannot be transported over the border or onto airplanes.
So, what to do? I went down to the local Tim Horton’s to ask some average, long-time Yukoners what they do. They had stories upon stories about bear encounters over the years. But a common theme emerged: whether you’re camping alongside a lake, fishing in a remote location, harvesting firewood or simply walking and cycling in country residential areas, the best thing to do is to keep calm. The bear no more wants an encounter with you than you do with it. And a surprised bear is put into a “flight or fight” moment, just as you are.
Keep calm, breathe and quietly, slowly back up, keeping the bear in your sight. Bears can run faster than you, swim faster than you, climb higher than you.
An especially helpful video, called Staying Safe in Bear Country, is offered for view at the Yukon Visitors Centre, at 100 Hanson Street in Whitehorse. There is nothing like sitting in a darkened theatre watching bears, larger than life, and learning and seeing how to prevent, deter and deflect the various situations that may arise in the bush. There about 10,000 black bears and 7,000 grizzlies in the Yukon wild. While you may never see one, you need to feel that you are armed with knowledge when you venture out.
I saw the damage a black bear can do to a locked Land Rover when it is determined to get to the garbage can inside. I saw the photos that Italian cyclist, Michela Ton, took of grizzly bears that she passed on the highway while on her trek from Argentina to Alaska. Truly spine-tingling. I met young men – German tourists – who were determined to meet bears in the wild, going as far as carrying bacon in their backpacks. Crazy, just crazy.
It remains that the bear does not want to encounter you, just as you do not want to encounter it. The easiest, the cheapest and the most effective way to avoid a surprise for both of you, is to make human noise. Talking, laughing, calling, singing, arguing- it matters not what you do, only that you do it. Especially, just before rounding a corner or cresting a hill.
Now you know as much as I do. And, if you doubt that you’ll remember what to do if you encounter a bear, you may simply freeze or faint, which when it comes right down to it, is probably the safest behavior of all.
More information can be found at:
WildWise Yukon, is located at 311, 108 Elliott St., 335-5212
Environment Yukon is located at 10 Burns Rd., 667-5652
Yukon Visitor Centre, located at 100 Hanson St., 667-3084
There are also Visitor Centres in Beaver Creek, Carcross, Dawson City, Haines Junction and Watson Lake.