AFTER HUMANS, who include in their arsenal everything from rifles that empty a 30-bullet magazine in 7 seconds to atomic bombs that obliterate entire cities faster than you can think, bears are North America’s most dangerous large predators.
They can be huge—the biggest bear ever seen (in Alaska in 1960) weighed more than a tonne and exceeded 3.4 metres in height when it stood up, which made it bigger than a small car and about 1.5 metres taller than the tallest National Basketball Association player.
Although an old Oblate missionary once showed me the skin of a polar bear shot a century ago on the shores of Hudson Bay that measured 5.8 metres from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail. Maybe it had stretched over time.
But maybe not: once, flying down the east coast of Baffin Island, we banked hard to look at a huge crimson splash on the snow where a bear was devouring a beluga whale it had dragged from a lead in the sea ice, killed and dismembered.
These impressive, highly intelligent animals populate our collective imagination—from the sea grizzly of the Haida, a supernatural monster in whose fur the souls of the drowned form bubbles, to the giant grizzly that hurtled out of the bush to maul one of explorer Simon Fraser’s voyageurs in 1805.
Yet dangerous is a relative term. Although popular media is rife with the recent report of mountain bikers followed by a curious black bear and a hiker in the Interior chased up a tree by another black bear that displayed unusually predatory behaviour, for the most part the risk of a bad bear encounter is almost infinitesimally low.
Estimates vary because reporting is localized and not consistently tabulated, but since 1986 there has been, on average, a fatal bear attack every two years in British Columbia. In the two years prior to this summer, curtailed by the imperatives of the on-going pandemic, there were about 44 million day trips to provincial parks in BC.
So the chances of those visitors having a really bad day with a bear on some park trail are about 0.0000045 per cent.
By comparison, over the same period about 180 people in BC will be murdered by their fellow humans. Another 15,000 or so will experience violent criminal assaults.
Continent-wide, about 75 people a year are killed in hunting accidents—in January, an Island man was killed on a hunting trip to Alberta; and in South Carolina a hunter and his nine-year-old daughter were killed when a fellow hunter mistook them for a deer. In BC, a trophy hunter was shot by his guide in 2014. In Canada and the US about 1,000 a year are injured by the accidental discharge of a firearm while hunting.
Then there are the 4.5 million people injured by dog bites each year and the up to 50 who are killed every year in attacks by family and neighbourhood pets.
So when you go into the woods, you are at much greater risk from fellow humans and their pets than from any bear you are likely to meet.
On the other hand, it’s a lot more dangerous for the bears. Problem encounters between humans and bears are on the rise and are far more likely to end badly for the bear.
As the interface between human and bear habitats expands, the number of human-bear conflicts in BC has risen to an average of more than 15,000 a year. The average number of black bears killed in what are euphemistically called “enforcement actions” is now up to about 500 a year. Another 3,900 or so black bears are legally shot by hunters according to provincial government statistics,
We should be cautious about averages, of course, because on average most of us are nowhere near a bear. The risks for those of us who are in proximity may be slightly higher, but usually it’s not because the bears are hunting us, it’s because we accidentally surprise them while intruding into their habitat.
After centuries of regional extirpations, the appearance of grizzlies in Island habitat where they haven’t been seen much before should be cause for wonder and celebration not hiker’s angst. More on that in my next post.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.