A female hiker had a lucky escape after a grizzly bear bluff charged her and her off-leash dog in the French Creek area of Kananaskis Country, Sunday (Aug. 9).
Provincial conservation officers say they are considering issuing a fine or laying charges against the Calgary-area hiker for not having her dog on a leash. They’ve also put up a warning in the area to let people know there’s a bear foraging and digging.
“She didn’t notice the bear when she walked past. Her dog was off-leash behind her about 20 metres,” said Nick Dykshoorn, conservation officer with Alberta Parks.
“The dog stood its ground and the bear gave a bluff charge towards the dog. The dog barked and the bear did retreat.”
In Alberta’s wildland parks, provincial parks and provincial recreation areas, dogs must be leashed. It’s the same for the neighbouring mountain national parks.
Dykshoorn said people having their dogs off-leash is a big problem in Kananaskis Country, noting that half of the people hiking in the backcountry don’t have their dogs on leash.
“Our compliance rate is terrible. Sometimes people get upset, but this is a big concern, especially in such high density areas for grizzly bears and black bears,” he said.
“An incident like this could cause human injury, as the dog could bring the bear back to the person, and then we may end up having to make a management decision for the bear.”
A report by world-renowned bear expert Stephen Herrero, author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, suggests that having an off-leash dog may increase chances of having an aggressive encounter with a bear.
Herrero’s study, published last year in International Bear News, found an off-leash dog may be more prone to pursue and provoke wildlife.
The study found that of 92 reported black bear attacks in Canada and the United States from 2010 to 201, 49 involved dogs.
“We looked at black bear attacks that occurred, but we suspect there are some similarities with grizzly bears,” said Herrero, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary.
“We suspected something was there, but didn’t realize it was that dramatic. Dogs were involved in more than half of them.”
Herrero said the research was unable to determine exactly what percentage of dogs were off-leash because media reports were incomplete, but in many of the cases it seemed the dogs were allowed to run loose and drew the bear to the owner.
“We strongly suspect off-leash dogs are driving it with black bear-related incidents. There’s no question dogs can trigger an attack by black bears, as well as grizzly bears,” he said.
“People should exercise lots of caution when out there with dogs. If you’re in bear country you should have your dog under control. There’s not much room for good things when having dogs off-leash.”
Despite myths to the contrary, Herrero said female black bears, even with young cubs, seldom attack people, although they can be provoked into attacking if harassed by people or dogs.
He said of the 92 total attacks, 23 involved a female with offspring and 21 of those involved a dog.
“The data suggests that these defensive attacks could have been triggered by the presence of dogs rather than the presence of a person,” he said.
Herrero said he believes bears react to dogs as if they are threatening competitors, sometimes attacking or killing them. In the 49 incidents involving dogs, dogs were injured half the time, and in seven instances the bear killed the dog.
“I think what it is, is that as this species evolved, their primary competitor would be the wolf pack,” he said. “Wolf packs are capable of taking down and killing a young bear and certainly cubs.”
Following the incident in Kananaskis Country on the weekend, the grizzly bear is being left alone to forage or move elsewhere as its behaviour was normal.
“In my opinion, that bear acted 100 per cent normally,” said Dykshoorn. “I would expect a bear to bluff charge in circumstances like that.”
The specified penalty for having a dog off leash is $115 in provincial parks, unless circumstances such as a repeat offender lead conservation officers to issue a mandatory court appearance.
Last month, a woman from the Kananaskis region was handed a $650 fine in Canmore Provincial Court for a repeat violation of having an off-leash dog within K-Country’s Evan Thomas recreation area. She was charged with the offence on May 21.
The first time she was charged for having an off leash dog was May 2012.
Courts have also banned people and their dogs from entering a provincial park.
“We’re really disappointed in how many people are actually complying with the rules,” said Dykshoorn.