Suncor Attack: Why Black Bears Kill And Safety In The Field

May 10, 2014 by  
Filed under Wind Energy Tips

Black bears are often considered less of a threat than their larger cousin, the grizzly. The last fatal attack in Alberta involving a black bear was well over a decade ago.

But the mauling of a Suncor employee near Fort McMurray on Wednesday is a reminder of the risk posed these wild animals that typically weigh around 200 kilograms.

The CBC spoke with  Alberta Wilderness Association conservation specialist Carolyn Campbell about the attack. She expressed her condolences to victim Lorna Weafer’s family. 

CBC: What would prompt a black bear to be involved in a fatal attack?

Campbell: First, it’s important to know that fatal black bear attacks are very rare. University of Calgary bear biologist, Stephen Herraro, led a research team that gathered every record it could, and found only 59 fatal black bear attacks throughout North America between 1900 and 2009.

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  • The following bear safety tips have been provided by Alberta Parks. For more information a href=”” target=”_blank”visit their website/a.

  • The best methods to avoid bear encounters are:


  • Keep your ears open. Do no wear earphones while on trails.

  • Watch for fresh bear signs. Tracks, scat and digs indicate that a bear has been in the area. Leave the area if the signs are fresh or if you encounter carrion.

  • Shouting regularly or singing loudly is far more effective than using bear bells.

  • Keep your dog on a leash or leave it at home.

  • Carry and know how to use bear spray.

  • Travel in groups and during daylight whenever possible.

  • If you encounter a bear…

    STOP! STAY CALM. Your calm behaviour can reassure the bear. Screams or sudden movements may trigger an attack.

  • NEVER RUN – running may cause the bear to pursue you. As well, pick up small children and stay in a group.

  • Bears may approach or stand on their hind legs to get a better look at you or to pick up your scent. This is their way of identifying you and is not an aggressive response.

  • BE HUMAN. Speak to the bear calmly and firmly. This indicates that you are not a prey animal. Appear passive.

  • If you have bear (pepper) spray, get your hands on it and be ready to use it. Take note of the direction and strength of the wind.

  • Keep your backpack, hiking poles and other equipment – they can provide protection.

  • If the bear approaches you

    Remain calm and prepare to use your bear spray. Assess the bear’s behaviour and try to determine why it is approaching.

  • If the bear appears defensive

    A defensive bear will appear stressed or agitated and may make noise. Try to appear non-threatening to the bear and talk in a calm voice. Whenever the bear is not advancing, slowly move away without turning your back to the bear.

    If the bear continues to advance, stand your ground and keep talking.
    If the bear approaches to within 12 metres (40 feet) – approximately the length of school bus – use your bear spray.

  • If the bear does not appear defensive

    Speak in a firm voice and move out of the bear’s path. If it follows you, stop and stand your ground.

    Shout and act aggresively.

    Try to intimidate the bear. Pick up a stick and/or raise hiking poles above your head to appear larger. If it approaches to within 12 m (40 feet), use your bear spray.

  • If a bear attacks you and it is a defensive attack

    Use your bear spray.

    If the bear makes contact with you, play dead! Playing dead involves lying on your stomach with your legs spread apart and your hands interlaced behind your neck to protect it. Having your legs spread makes it harder for the bear to roll you over. Remain still until you are sure the bear has left the area.

    Defensive attacks usually do not exceed two minutes in duration. In most cases, injuries are relatively minor. If an attack lasts longer, it is possible that the defensive attack has become predatory.

  • If it is a predatory attack..

    Try to escape! A car or building may provide safe refuge.

    If you cannot escape, DO NOT play dead.

  • Use your bear spray and fight back! Make lots of noise, throw rocks, hit the animal with a branch or your poles – do everything you can to dissuade the bear from continuing the attack.

In most human encounters with black bears, the bears show defensive behaviour and want to leave as quickly as they can. Of the very rare attacks, a high proportion were predatory attacks by male black bears on groups of one or two people who did not have any deterrents such as pepper spray. In about 40 per cent of the cases, the bears had been attracted by food or edible garbage and were also known to have previously either fed on or approached nearby food or garbage.

The lesson is, first, be very careful not to give bears any access to food, garbage, dump sites, any type of attractants. Second, even with that precaution, a very few male black bears may seize an opportunity to attack a lone person or two people. So, when you are in bear country, be alert to the presence and behaviour of bears, travel in groups of three or more, carry pepper spray and know how to use it if necessary.

CBC: How common is contact between bears and oil and gas workers? 

Campbell: To my knowledge, no statistics are available. The Alberta government does not publish data of even serious incidents, such as when it is called in to shoot garbage-habituated bears. It should publish these records. It should also send a stronger message about the importance of deterrents by fining companies that are mismanaging food, garbage and other attractants.

CBC: How well are energy companies preparing their employees to work in the field?

Campbell: Our impression is that larger, longer-term operators like Suncor do train their employees in wildlife awareness and safety. In 2011, there was a serious problem with some operators who were carelessly allowing bears in camps and facilities to become habituated to eating garbage.

In fact, 145 so-called nuisance black bears were shot in northeast Alberta in the fall of 2011, of which half were at energy camps or plant sites. This is totally unacceptable. Yet no companies were named, no fines were given. There should be more transparency from the Alberta government on what is expected from companies and who is falling short, both for worker safety and to respect the wildlife whose habitat has been altered by industrial disturbance. In this particular tragic case of May 2014, though, we want to emphasize that we have no evidence at all that Suncor did anything wrong.

CBC: Finally, what should people do if they are attacked by a black bear?

Campbell: First, of course, minimize the risk by removing food attractants, travelling in groups of three or more, and never provoke a bear by harassing it or allowing dogs to harass it.

Second, recognize the difference between defensive and predatory behaviour: defensive behaviour, if the bear doesn’t immediately flee, includes grunting noises, teeth clicking, swatting the ground with front paws, short charges that stop short of contact or slow approaches. Giving the bear room to leave is best. In predatory attacks, black bears typically don’t behave this way, but instead stalk more stealthily and then proceed to a full out attack. If it likely it is a predatory attack, then people should try to deter or fight the bear using everything possible, including making loud noises, using bear spray or any other potential weapon such as fists, clubs, rocks, knives or guns.

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