KANANASKIS – A female grizzly bear, believed to be protecting her two cubs, attacked a 38-year-old man hiking alone in a remote area in southern Kananaskis Country on Sunday (Sept. 26).
Provincial wildlife officials say the bear mauled the hiker during a surprise encounter by a creek near Storelk Mountain, south of Highwood Pass in Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park shortly before 1 p.m.
John Paczkowski, a Canmore-based park ecologist with Alberta Parks, said the hiker had his head down as he headed into more technical terrain and looked up to see a grizzly bear about six metres away with two cubs directly behind her.
“They surprised each other and she charged and attacked the gentleman,” Paczkowski said.
“It was a short duration attack of about 30 seconds, and during that time he sustained injuries basically from head to toe, and she disengaged from the attack.”
Conservation officers and other staff were on site Monday investigating what may have led to the encounter, but Paczkowski said the initial assessment points to a typical defensive attack on the part of the mother bear wanting to protect her cubs.
“It was a typical surprise encounter involving a female with cubs, and she acted as most grizzly bears do,” he said.
There is no plan to trap the female bear because her behaviour was natural.
“We haven’t set any traps and we’re not looking for the bear,” Paczkowski said. “We are trying to collect some genetic samples to see if it is a known bear… it was in a fairly remote location.”
With no cell coverage in the area, the badly injured hiker used an inReach satellite communication device to raise the alarm.
The rescue helicopter could not safely land at the site because of windy conditions, but a conservation officer was slung in to prepare the patient to be slung to a waiting ambulance. He was then rushed to Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary.
Paczkowski said the hiker had serious, but non-life threatening injuries.
“There were significant injuries to his head and face and feet and legs,” he said.
Following the encounter, Alberta Parks was quick to close an extensive area of Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park west of Highway 40 from Peter Lougheed Provincial Park boundary south to an unnamed ridge south of Running Rain Lake off Mount Odlum.
A warning was also extended to other areas in the grizzly bear's home range, including Ptarmigan Cirque, Pocaterra Ridge, Arethusa, Lipsett, Mist, Picklejar Creek and Lantern Creek.
The closure and warning will remain in place until further notice.
Nick de Ruyter, program director and interim executive director for Bow Valley WildSmart, said it is not unusual for female bears to act defensively when protecting their cubs.
“When you run into a mother bear protecting her cubs – we call those defence encounters – that’s when we’re seen as a threat to her cubs,” de Ruyter said.
“Often they will bluff-charge to let you know you are too close, and in those situations we want to try and leave the area and to remain calm. We don’t know exactly what the bear is thinking, if it’s a bluff-charge or if they are actually going to make contact.”
Although the hiker was carrying bear spray, the incident happened very quickly and underlines the need to have pepper spray easily accessible in the event of an encounter.
Paczkowski encourages people to follow what he calls the two-second rule.
“From the time you see that bear, you need to have your bear spray out and ready to deploy in two seconds,” he said. “It is very possible, but it takes a little practice.”
The hiker involved in this encounter was travelling alone, but wildlife experts say it is much safer to travel in groups of at least four individuals.
“Once you’ve got a big group, not only are you making noise, but you’re more intimidating to bears,” said de Ruyter, noting the chance of a bear encounter is reduced by hiking together.
“Hopefully that mother bear will take a look at your big group and then take off into the trees as opposed to standing her ground and running at you or bluff-charging or whatever it might be.”
There is also an elevated risk of running into a bear at this time of year as people and bears are travelling in the same environment.
de Ruyter said hordes of people are heading into the alpine and subalpine for as part of the annual fall pilgrimage as the green larches have turned golden – and that’s also where the grizzly bears are at this time of year trying to find food.
“They are trying to get those last minute calories before hibernation… ground squirrels and digging up roots and bulbs,” he said.
With a less than ideal buffaloberry season, de Ruyter said there are lots of hungry bears out there and it’s vital they get the calories they need heading into hibernation.
“They really need to put on those pounds and get nice and fat for winter, not only to survive to winter hibernation, but also for the females in order to reproduce, they have to be healthy and fat in order to do that,” he said.
“We want to try and maximize opportunities for them to do that. We are all sharing the same space and all these people heading up there are certainly going to interrupt their feeding patterns and feeding habits.”
Another safety tip is keeping dogs on leash at all times as required by law.
According to de Ruyter, a grizzly bear bluff-charged a group of hikers with their dog off leash the previous weekend in the same Highwood Pass area.
“Better yet, especially at this time of year, consider leaving your dogs at home,” he said.
“Go and enjoy the larch hike without having dogs that want to run off leash or dogs that want to disrupt grizzly bears’ feeding habits.”
Please report all bear sightings immediately to 403-591-7755.