Amid reports that people are flouting a closure on the Squamish Estuary trail network, a local woman who was bitten by a black bear is urging the public to be respectful of the animals and give them their space.
On Nov. 7, Amber Mawson told The Squamish Chief that despite her unfortunate turn of luck, she feels privileged to recreate in an area filled with wildlife. She's also asking folks to reconsider where they play for the time being.
"All of us who love the estuary for recreation love it because it is a wildlife area, because it harbours bear families, other mammals, birds, insects and an entire ecosystem that is the 'lungs of the Squamish River,'" she said in a written statement.
"I want to protect that and keep it safe. With respect to the bears in particular, and the mamma bear that was doing her job to protect and feed her family, the best thing I can do to keep them safe is to not be in that area right now."
On Thursday, Mawson was attacked by a bear while going for a run in the estuary. She was one of two people who were attacked that day by black bears. Both cases were separate, but involved the same mother bear and yearling cub.
In Mawson's case, the mother bear bit her.
In the other incident, the yearling clawed at a pedestrian's face. Both women are expected to recover from their injuries.
Mawson posted publicly on social media about what happened to her.
In the morning of her run in the estuary, her post recounted, she came around a corner quickly in the middle of a bear family feeding.
She wasn't wearing earbuds and did not have a dog with her.
The yearling cub was in front of her, and she stopped as soon as she saw it. The sow was off to Mawson's left and slightly behind.
"She immediately growled, jumped on my side, and shoved me off the trail," reads Mawson's post. "I was still on my feet; I contemplated running into the water, but just wasn't sure if running would provoke further predatory response, so I stood still and whimpered loudly while looking away from her. She jumped on me a second time and bit my back/shoulder. I stayed still again and she backed off."
Mawson said she stayed in place for half a minute, until another runner came by. Shortly after, another runner also arrived. They offered to help walk her back out of the area. Neither had seen the animals.
"This attack was purely defensive. I was in the wrong spot at the wrong time, and for that, I am very sorry," she wrote.
"In the future, I will not run on these trails in the fall when the bears are stressed and desperate to feed as much as possible. I will choose trails with a better line-of-site or run with a partner. I will always run with bear spray. Even though I did not have time to draw it before the first pounce, it is possible I could have avoided the second attack if I had it. I have spent several decades recreating in bear-country and consider myself bear-aware, but 500 metres from my house felt like a safe zone, and I was complacent."
The incident prompted authorities to shut down the Squamish Estuary trail network after the attack. Conservation officers say that it will remain shut until further notice to give the bears their space.
However, a local who volunteered to assist with signage and education about the closures on Saturday said that people frequently disregarded the closure.
"Literally, in 20 minutes, there were at least six individuals who just completely ignored it," Sara King told The Squamish Chief.
In one of those cases, there was a less-than-polite exchange.
"One looked at me and said, 'I can just go over under that yellow [barrier] over there, right?' And it's like, 'Well, no, you can't, because that is all closed,'" recalled King. "And she got very upset. I will not say what I was called."
She said she was taken aback at people's attitudes regarding the restrictions.
"I got the expression[s] back to me: 'Well, I know how to react around a bear. Oh, I have my bear spray with me. Oh, I'm fine. I go here all the time,'" recalled King. "And it's like, well, no, this is not just about you. I don't think they understand. It's about saving the bears."
The Squamish Chief asked authorities what could be done in such a situation.
The District said that the Conservation Officer Service is the lead agency, and, along with the municipality, is asking the community to respect the temporary Skwelwil'em Squamish Estuary Wildlife Management Area closures in place.
"The District's Bylaw department is monitoring the area throughout the day to ensure that signage and barricades are still in place. One of the barricades had been knocked over, possibly due to wind," wrote District spokesperson Rachel Boguski.
"The most important thing the community can do to help safeguard the survival of this bear family is respect the closure and continue to report any wildlife sightings or encounters to the Conservation Officer Service Hotline at 1-877-952-7277. It is not possible or reasonable to post staff on guard at all entrances."
The Conservation Officer Service had similar remarks.
Sgt. Simon Gravel said he was saddened by the news that some people disregarded the closures.
Gravel said officers can't patrol every trailhead, so he urged community members to co-operate.
For the future, however, he said the Ministry of Forests, the land manager of the estuary, is reviewing the regulations governing the Wildlife Management Area.
Authorities are entertaining some suggestions, such as banning off-leash dogs.
"I know there were no dogs involved in these attacks, but, in my experience, bears that always get harassed by dogs eventually become more defensive, and they can become proactive to defend their space," said Gravel.
"The Wildlife Management Area is a dog on-leash only area. And we know that it's not very well respected. A lot of people decide to use the area as a dog off-leash zone. So that will be part of our discussion for sure."
He said they've also received suggestions to enact seasonal closures in spring and fall, when bears are most active.
Rare but not unheard of
Vanessa Isnardy, WildSafeBC program manager, said that such attacks are rare, but not unheard of in town.
A report from WildSafeBC states that four people were injured by black bears between the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017.
Isnardy recalled details of some of those cases around that time.
In one case, two people were in their backyard in the Garibaldi Estates. A bear came around a corner, then charged at them.
In another case, she said another person in the Estates was walking by salmon spawning channels and bears charged at him because they were protecting a food source.
She also remembered there was another case where someone walking their dog in the Garibaldi Highlands, and was attacked by a female bear. There may have been a cub present.
Bears are stressed
This time of year is a stressful time for bears.
"This is a make-it-or-break-it kind of season for bears really trying to make sure they're well-prepared for winter denning," said Isnardy. "And, you know, food is a little bit more scarce at this time of year. So they can be a little bit more assertive, especially if they do find a food source."
While she couldn't say the cause in this case, Isnardy noted that there are problematic habits that people have when travelling through bear country.
"Bears have ongoing, repeated negative interactions with off-leash dogs. And people will often send their dogs out to drive a bear off. But then what happens is the bear eventually realizes that, 'Oh, I'm bigger than the dog, why am I running away?'" she said.
"We don't know the history of the sow and cub that led to [Thursday's attacks, but] I would find it hard to believe that they just all of a sudden were attacking people, unless there might have been some other history there and some other negative experiences that those bears have. But that would just be a guess, on my part."
Adrian Nelson, wildlife field manager with Humane Solutions, said that this time of year, bears are stressed, as they are trying to put on as much weight as possible.
Their focus can narrow as a result, and they can be much more easily surprised than usual. This can lead to defensive attacks.
"They have a bit of a blinder on right now while they're so focused on food," said Nelson.
"The noises that we might be making may not be sufficient enough."
Bears so zoned in on feeding may not as easily hear people walking through the trails. This can lead to surprises, and, unfortunately, attacks.
This is especially true in areas where there's a lot of natural noise to begin with, like a river or stream.
"We need to be a little extra diligent with making a bit of noise and letting bears know that we're there."