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Here is what to do if you run into a cougar, bear, or wolf in B.C.

Will bear bells ward off the predators? These and other questions are answered by an expert.
There are several things you need to keep in mind before you head out into the woods. 

Do you know how you would react if you came up close and personal with an apex predator in the wilderness? 

According to a local wildlife expert, the best way to handle a situation like this is to avoid ending up in this type of situation in the first place. That said, it isn't always possible to avoid interactions with animals while camping or hiking in B.C.'s beautiful backyard. 

But there are several things you need to keep in mind before you head out into the woods. 

Keeping safe with B.C. wildlife 

Vanessa Isnardy, a program manager for WildSafeBC, tells Vancouver Is Awesome the first thing people should keep in mind is that predator attacks are rare. However, there are things you can do to reduce your risk of a negative encounter. 

Avoiding bear encounters altogether is key, notes Isnardy, who advises people to look for evidence of bruins in the area such as scat, tracks, freshly overturned logs, fresh claw marks on trees.

Additionally, campers and hikers should stick together and talk or sing to avoid surprising bears.

"Travelling with another person results in more noise and may also help dissuade a bear from approaching," she explains.

If you must travel alone, avoid wearing headphones and "be cautious around running water, thick brush or high wind that may mask your presence," she adds. 

Will bear bells ward off the predators?

Isnardy says that the high-pitched tinkle from these devices does not travel as far and is not recognized as a human. Instead, people should carry bear spray that is easily accessible. It should not be in a backpack or attached to a bike. 

Campers and hikers should also mitigate the risk of attracting bears by bringing their garbage with them and not tossing organic materials. 

"Apple cores and banana peels can attract wildlife to a roadside which may result in a vehicle collision," she describes.

Pets should also be leashed or under control in bear country. 

"In a review of black bear attacks, dogs were involved in over 50 per cent of black bear inflicted injuries on humans," she says. "Dogs may be perceived as a potential threat or prey."

Isnardy also recommends using extra caution in bear habitats and where sightlines are poor. This includes berry bushes with ripe fruit, salmon-bearing streams and other areas bears are known to frequent.

If you find a carcass leave the area immediately and notify the Conservation Officer Service and/or landowner.

As a special aside for runners, Isnardy mentions: "When mountain biking or running, you may be travelling relatively quietly and at a higher rate of speed. This can increase your chances of surprising a bear. Also, the higher speed may also trigger a chase response. Slow down around blind corners and call out more frequently to avoid surprising a bear."

Bear Encounters in the Wild

Most importantly, if you see a bear in the wild never run, underscores the wildlife expert. Instead, stop and stay calm.

"Most bears are wary of humans and tend to avoid us."

Since black bears evolved in wooded habitats, they are more inclined to flee into the forest rather than engage. But a bear defending a kill or a female bear, especially grizzly sows, can be protective. Occasionally, black bears may show predatory behaviour where they approach quietly and intently.

What you do next depends on the bear’s behaviour. Isnardy provides the following tips for various bear and human encounters. 

  1. A bear that is unaware. Leave the area quietly and go back the way you came while keeping an eye on the bear. Check your bear spray in case you need to pull it out quickly.
  2. A bear that is aware but not reacting to your presence. Speak softly, back away slowly. If the bear leaves, let it do so and do not follow it
  3. A bear that seems agitated will make noises such as jaw-popping, moaning, woofing and may even stomp the ground or bluff charge. These are all signs of a bear behaving defensively and letting you know you are too close. Speak softly and calmly and back away slowly. Do not make direct eye contact but keep the bear in sight. Pull out your bear spray and be prepared to use it. If the bear charges, stand your ground and discharge the bear spray when the bear is in range (5 to 10 m). Most bluff charges stop short of contact but you may be knocked down (see below).
  4. A bear that is steadily approaching you. The bear may simply be wanting to use the same path you are on. Yield to the bear slowly. If the bear continues to approach, this is a dangerous situation where the bear may be predatory. In this case you want to yell at the bear and get onto higher ground. Be prepared to fight for your life if the bear attacks. If you have bear spray have it ready to use when the bear is in range (5 to 10 m).
  5. If a bear makes physical contact, how you react depends on the nature of the attack. A defensive bear attack is usually a result of a surprise encounter where a bear is protecting itself, its food source or its cubs. If it is a defensive attack by a grizzly or black bear that knocks you down, the best defense is to lie still on your stomach, protect the back of your head by clasping your hands, and spread your feet slightly apart to avoid getting rolled over. Once the bear feels that you are no longer a threat, the attack will stop. Stay still and do not get up until you are sure the bear has left the area
  6. If the attack does not stop and the bear tries to consume you then you are dealing with a predatory attack. You must fight off the bear with everything at hand by focusing on the bear’s face, eyes and nose. In both cases, having bear spray, and knowing how to use it, can significantly increase your chances of avoiding contact at all.

Cougar encounters 

Unlike bears, Isnardy says cougars are obligate carnivores and they must hunt prey to survive. Their primary prey is deer and they are active year-round.

While cougars rarely attack humans, children are most at risk. As such, anyone who lives near a cougar habitat should ensure thier children know how to react in an encounter. You should always report aggressive cougar behaviour, kill sites or cougar sightings in urban areas to the BC Conservation Officer Service (1-877-952-7277).

Not unlike bears, the "best cougar encounter is the one you avoid," underscores Isnardy. "Avoid walking alone and avoid surprise encounters by making noise with your voice." 

You should also avoid hiking or using trails with poor sightlines at dawn and dusk when predators are most active. Additionally, hikers and campers should be aware of water or wind that prevents their voices from carrying. Pets should also be kept under control. 

If you do encounter a cougar, "keep calm and never run," she explains. "Make yourself look as large as possible and back away slowly, keeping the cougar in view, and allowing a clear exit for the cougar."

Pets and small children should be picked up immediately; older children should be kept close and in front of you so they don't panic and try to flee.

"Never run or turn your back as sudden movements may provoke an attack. Cougar may vocalize when cornered or acting [defensively.] These vocalizations can range from a 'hissing' to a deep growling sound. This is often a warning to back off," describes Isnardy.

"If you notice that a cougar that is watching you, maintain eye contact with the cougar and speak to it in a loud firm voice. Reinforce the fact that you are a human and not an easy target. If you have bear spray, withdraw it from the holster and remove the safety. Back out of the area and seek assistance or shelter."

You must show aggression to a cougar who shows aggression to you or begins to follow you. Do this by maintaining eye contact, yelling, and making loud noises. Similar to bears, you never want to "play dead." If possible, without crouching down, you can try to pick up sticks, rocks, or anything nearby to use as weapons, if needed.

If the feline attacks, you need to fight back: focus on its face and eye area. 

"If you have bear spray, discharge it. Use rocks, sticks or personal belongings as weapons. You are trying to convince the cougar that you are a threat and not prey. If you are in a group, stay together to fend off the cougar attack," Isnardy says.

In the unlikely event you encounter cougar kittens (they are usually well-hidden by their mother), do not attempt to handle or approach them. Leave the area immediately.

Wolf encounters 

If Vancouverites have learned anything about taking selfies with wildlife over the past couple of years, it's that doing so habituates them to people and that puts people at risk. Coyote attacks increased dramatically over the course of the pandemic because people were feeding coyotes and other wildlife, which resulted in unprecedented attacks. 

With this in mind, if you see a beautiful wolf it's best to carry on and not stop to snap a photograph. Isnardy notes that doing so "teaches a wolf that it is ok to be around people which is not safe for the wolf or others."

But if a wolf approaches you and shows signs of aggression, do not run.

"Be assertive with the animal by throwing rocks, yelling, making yourself appear large and threatening. It is important that you never play dead with a wolf. Keep slowly backing away and out of the area until you can get to safety. The advice is the same for coyotes."

Similar to coyotes, it is vital that wolves don't associate people with food sources. The way to prevent this is by not leaving food unattended. Since these canines are highly intelligent, they even know how to open hatches of kayaks. Instead, secure food and other attractants in a "hard-sided vehicle, hung in a tree or in a bear-resistant container," explains Isnardy.

And while wolf attacks are rare, wolf and dog encounters are more common. Wolves are very territorial and will perceive dogs as a potential threat or prey.

"Always check your yard before letting your pets out. If you back onto green space and don’t have a fenced yard, you will want to monitor your pets. Solid fencing works better at keeping wildlife out as they are less likely to jump into a space they cannot see into," she outlines. 

"It is always best to keep your pet on a leash in wildlife country. We should always be prepared to encounter wildlife and have a plan in place if we do. In most cases, wildlife encounters are a fleeting glimpse into the wildness of BC and both parties can part ways with no harm to either if we react appropriately and behave responsibly."