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Grizzly bear attacks rare, but a risk in wilderness, experts say

A couple and their dog were killed in Banff National Park on Friday (Sept. 29)
Divide Pass in the backcountry of Banff National Park is shown on July 3, 2019. A grizzly bear attack in the backcountry of the national park on Friday left two people and their dog dead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colette Derworiz

Grizzly bear experts say fatal attacks are extremely rare, but it’s always a risk when people venture into the wilderness.

Two people were killed on the weekend by a grizzly bear in the backcountry of Banff National Park in Alberta.

Kevin Van Tighem, who worked as a biologist in the national parks and wrote the book “Bears Without Fear,” said it’s tragic for the victims and their families.

“It’s a horrible thing to have happen,” he said in an interview. “The family doesn’t come out of it (unscathed), so I really feel for everybody involved.”

Another bear expert who’s also a family friend of one of the two people killed said both the couple and their dog died.

“These were very experienced outdoors people. I don’t know if they had bear spray on them. I highly doubt they had food sources that were left out,” said Kim Titchener, who has a company called Bear Safety and More.

“This might be a wrong place, wrong time situation.”

READ ALSO: Couple killed by bear near Banff experienced in outdoors: family friend

Parks Canada has not provided those details, and said Monday it would not have an update on the attack before Tuesday.

“We are working to confirm further information,” spokeswoman Natalie Fay said in an email.

“This is a tragic situation and out of respect for the victims and their families, Parks Canada has a responsibility to ensure information is confirmed and accurate before releasing it publicly.”

The federal agency had said in an earlier statement that its dispatchers received an alert at about 8 p.m. Friday from an inReach GPS device about a bear attack west of Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, which is about 200 kilometres northwest of Calgary.

It immediately sent its Wildlife Human Attack Response Team to the area by ground because weather conditions in the mountains prevented it from using a helicopter. The team arrived at about 1 a.m. Saturday and found the two people dead, the statement said.

Parks Canada said the team encountered a grizzly bear behaving aggressively and killed it to protect the public.

Van Tighem’s sister Patricia and her husband were badly injured in 1983 by a grizzly bear in Waterton Lakes National Park in southwestern Alberta. He said bear attacks are unusual, and he’s awaiting the results of the Parks Canada investigation into the one on the weekend.

“It’s exceptionally rare to have a bear attack. It’s even more rare to have people killed by bears, but it can happen. It’s happened in the past,” he said. “It’s a risk that people take when they go out into the backcountry.

“It’s just a very unfortunate thing to happen. You just can’t control all the variables when you’re out there.”

Bears, he said, are feeding intensely at this time of year to put on weight before winter and hibernation.

“They are totally food obsessed,” he said. “That means that it’s very easy to surprise them.

“If they feel their food source is threatened, that can make them defensive.”

Titchener said she’s also awaiting more details, but said it’s already dark at 8 p.m., so it’s believed the couple had set up their campsite in the remote area of the park.

Some of the other possibilities, she said, include a bear that was surprised when it was protecting a carcass or its cubs, or that the grizzly reacted to the couple’s dog.

“Dogs are perceived by carnivores as a threat,” said Titchener. “If (dogs) approach a bear that has cubs with it or it’s on a carcass, they perceive them as a threat to their food source or their young, they will chase a dog.

“If the dog runs back to the owners … then the people are perceived as a threat as well and the bear will attack the people.”

The Red Deer and Panther valleys from the Snow Creek summit east to the national park boundary, and north to Shale Pass remain closed as a safety precaution until further notice.

Banff National Park, which is Canada’s first and busiest national park, is home to both grizzly and black bears.

“I know a lot of people go, ‘Oh my gosh, a grizzly attack’ but actual fatalities are quite low,” said Titchener.

“We see a few maulings a year here and in the United States. On rare occasions, we’ll see a fatality. That, of course, is the shocking piece.”

The last two fatal grizzly bear attacks in Alberta were both in May 2021. A woman was attacked and killed by a bear when she was out for a walk on her private property near Water Valley, Alta., while a man was killed in the Waiparous area when he was out for a run.