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Elk most likely animal to attack in Alberta: report

“(When) we look at studies on why wild animals attack people, we find that the causes are really related to human behaviour and not understanding how to behave in these environments and putting (ourselves) at risk,” said Kim Titchener, president of Bear Safety & More Inc.
Kim Titchener, president of Bear Safety & More Inc. RITA TAYLOR/Photo

Your chances of being attacked by a wild animal when venturing outdoors in Alberta are low, but never zero.

However, there are predictable circumstances in which wildlife will lash out and there are measures one can take to stay safe.

“We had three people killed by bears in 2021. That's an unusually high number. That's not statistically normal … I think it's easy to assume that it's somehow related to nature. And something to do with wildlife,” said Kim Titchener, president of Bear Safety & More Inc.

Tichener said it is important to look at our own behaviour and analyze the circumstances that caused these animals to attack.

“(When) we look at studies on why wild animals attack people, we find that the causes are really related to human behaviour and not understanding how to behave in these environments and putting (ourselves) at risk,” she said.

A recent report by SportingPedia found there were a total of 3,724 animal attacks in Alberta from 2011 to 2021, based on Parks Canada data.

Elk made up the bulk of the attacks in Alberta at 2,299; there were also 431 grizzly bear attacks and 243 black bear attacks.

Though these numbers suggest elk are the most aggressive animal in Alberta, Parks Canada spokesperson Brenna Ward said there have been no human fatalities related to aggressive elk in Alberta national parks in at least 20 years.

Titchener said elk have learned to avoid predators by coming into townsites, using humans as a buffer.

“What happens is, people are like walking around, walking on a trail next to the golf course ... then all of a sudden there's an elk charging at them trying to protect their baby,” Titchener said.

In the fall, the males get aggressive.

“You'll see this massive herd of females and this one big elk with a beautiful rack and then you walk by and they're like, ‘get away from my girlfriends,’ and they literally will charge at you,” she said.

The province with the second highest number of attacks according to SportingPedia was British Columbia, with 293 from 2010 to 2021.

SportingPedia lists grizzly bears as the top animal to have attacked people in B.C. at 104, wolves were second in the list at 86, and black bears were reported to have attacked a person 66 times in the 11 years.

Titchener said it makes sense that there would be a high number of attacks in places people go.

“If we were to compare visitor numbers — people do go to Alberta's Banff National Park and Jasper National Park — we have millions of visitors a year,” she said.

Data from Parks Canada showed Banff and Jasper have consistently had the highest number of visitors out of any national park, reserve, or conservation area with an average of about 3.46 million visitors in Banff from 2011 to 2016, and 2.08 million visitors to Jasper from 2011-2016.

National Park data for the 2021-22 season again showed Banff and Jasper to be top spots for tourists, with Banff seeing 3.67 million visitors and Jasper seeing 2.11 million visitors. The national park with the third-highest number of tourists was the Pacific Rim National Park with 1.19 million for the 2021-22 season.

“If there's more and more of us going out into national parks and provincial parks, state parks, we're going to have more attacks. It's just inevitable with a lack of education and the inability of government agencies or non-profits to keep up with it,” said Titchener.

Ward said Parks Canada maintains public data regarding human-wildlife coexistence (HWC) and they were not contacted by SportingPedia for additional human-wildlife coexistence (HWC) data, interviews, or written statements and the majority of HWC are minor and managed by staff safely.

Parks Canada is cautioning the public over the way SportingPedia presented the data as the outlet compared 11 year of Parks Canada data with one year of provincial data and reported it as a likelihood of being attacked.

“Which resulted in exaggerated and false statistics. Parks Canada advises against this use and interpretation of the data which over-represent the chances and are prone to misleading conclusions,” said Ward in an email.

Further, the term aggressive encounters include a wide range of behaviours from animals including contact and non-contact towards a person, pet, or property; or a physical or aggressive display.

“Many of these incidents are animals responding in defence of their space, offspring or food.  The data contains all recorded incidents with a variety of wildlife species, including small animals such as squirrels. An aggressive encounter is not the same as an attack,” said Ward.

However, carnivore attacks have been increasing over time world-wide.

“It is directly related to human population and our growth rates. As there's more humans on the landscape, there's going to be more attacks on the landscape,” Titchener said.

A study release on Jan 31, titled Worldwide Carnivore Attacks on Humans, looked into the factors involved in carnivore attack patterns from 1950 to 2019 worldwide.

As carnivore habitat has fragmented and contracted due to expanding human activities, the study states we now face the problem of having to learn to live with species that pose a threat to humans, and vice versa.

The study found that people in low-income countries generally have negative encounters with carnivores in livelihood activities, while in rich countries, like Canada, attacks mainly occurred while people were involved in recreational activities and “deliberately entering areas inhabited by large carnivores.”

Habitat seems to be an important factor in animal attacks. The study found that low-income areas with low CO2 emissions and a high proportion of agriculture land had the most attacks. However, the number of attacks has decreased over the years in countries with a high proportion of forest.

Climate change was directly related to attacks by polar bears, as loss of habitat is driving them into human areas.

The link between climate change and Alberta carnivores is tenuous.

“Climate change is absolutely having impacts on like when and where (grizzly and black bears) are. It may impact for sure where they go. And I think there's certainly a lot of changes on the landscape that are that are impacting other species,” Titchener said, but there is no real data as of yet.

The study found that the circumstances and frequency of attacks was not determined by species alone rather by the local context as a whole and most attacks were injuries only.

“About half the time when people get attacked by large carnivores it's because we're doing what we call risk enhancing behavior…leaving our children unattended, walking dogs in nature— mostly off leash, people approaching females with young, which is never a good idea,” said Titchener.

Common Canadian carnivores the study looked at included cougars, black bears, grizzly bears, polar bears, wolves, and coyotes.

Cougar attacks were found to be mostly predatory attacks. Most people attacked were involved in a sport activity at the time. Half the victims were found to be children.

Black bear attacks occurred most often when a dog was present, but a quarter of the attacks were predatory. Reaction by female with cubs was a factor behind 16 per cent of attacks and food related attacks was also a factor in 16 per cent of cases studied. Most of the people involved in an attack were adults and 25 per cent were camping, while 24 per cent were carrying out activities outside of their homes, according to the study.

Grizzly attacks were mostly caused by a defensive reaction from a female with her cub. Involuntary sudden encounters were the factor in 20 per cent of grizzly attacks, dog presence was 17 per cent, 10 per cent of cases were after an animal had been shot or trapped and five per cent of attacks involving grizzlies were predatory. The study states that nearly all of the people involved were adults and most were recreating outdoors.

The study found only 25 wolf attacks occurred in North America between 1980 to 2019. When they did occur, the animal had been food conditioned in 15 out of 18 of those cases.

In the case of coyotes, 54 per cent of the 140 studied were predatory attacks, 32 per cent involved dogs. Most, or 81 per cent of encounters, involved children but only 1 per cent were fatal.

Half of the carnivore encounters studied were predatory or unprovoked. Unprovoked attacks mostly occurred in North America and Europe, and the animals involved were considered to be food conditioned.

Titchener said there are ways to avoid encounters with animals that go across the board for all wildlife.

Whether a person is biking, hiking or running, they should be making noise.

“You're making noise frequently — and that's year round —just every couple of minutes letting out a hoot and a holler to let from Cougars to bears to moose know that you are a human being so that they're not miss identifying you as a prey species and (also) giving them an opportunity to be aware of your presence so that they can avoid you,” she said.

People should also be supervising their children, keeping their dogs on a leash, and carrying bear spray in a holster for ease of access.

“Bear spray has been proven to be a highly effective tool at stopping black bear, grizzly bear, and polar bear attacks. But I want to also mention that we have some cases of people using bear spray on cougars, coyote, and on moose, so it's something to consider carrying year-round,” she said.

If a moose or elk were charging, Titchener recommends hiding behind a tree and then spraying.

For those fearful of wondering outdoors, Titchener said encounters like these are extremely rare.

“There's not 1000s of people getting attacked by bears every year. The actual rate of fatality is very low. If you go out with a group of four or more people — you don't see attacks by bears in groups of four or more, right?”

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