Human-wildlife encounters don’t need to be unBEARable

Krystal Rancourt
29 June 2015

Above: Image © St. Clair

If you live in Northern Ontario, you’ll probably experience multiple human-wildlife encounters during your lifetime. Lower human population densities in northern communities mean that animal habitats could be in your backyard, even if you’re not always aware of your furry neighbours’ visits. But when you do find yourself in close quarters with a wild visitor, don’t panic. Generally, the animal is more frightened of you than you are of it. And learning to peacefully coexist with wild animals is key to supporting conservation efforts and protecting the health of local ecosystems.

Did you know? Of the nine species of big cat in the world, only one (the cougar) is classified as being of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The others are considered threatened, vulnerable, or endangered.Where you encounter an animal and how many you meet will vary from one species for the next. For example, deer adopt a behaviour called yarding to help them survive the harsh winters. By concentrating themselves in one area, the snow becomes packed down, making it easier for deer to conserve energy. By contrast, moose have longer legs and can easily travel through deeper snow, allowing them to travel more independently and over longer distances in winter.

In any case, visits from ungulates such as deer and moose tend not to be cause for a lot of concern, except for maybe your garden in the spring. Ways to discourage deer from munching on your flowers and produce include planting strong-smelling varieties such as garlic, chives and mint. Placing a bar of soap or human hair may also deter deer from entering your garden. Deer rely on their sense of smell for many things, which is why making your garden smell unattractive to them can help.

Carnivore encounters and bear safety

What people tend to really worry are visits from carnivores. In particular, meat-eating wildlife can attack domestic animals such as livestock, cats, and dogs. Unfortunately, examples of what not to do in the presence of a wild predator abound. One woman in Terrance Bay, Ontario, videotaped her encounter with a Canada lynx, during which she called out “kitty, kitty” to the visiting feline. But since Canada lynxes are known to be elusive creatures, when one turns up in populated area, the animal may be hungry or ill. And as with any wild animal, you should keep your distance, not entice it to come closer and potentially attack you.

In the Sudbury area, there are large numbers of black bear encounters in the spring, when bears emerge from hibernation. After a long winter sleep, the animals are famished and need food to replenish their energy. They generally search for carrion, which is the meat from the carcases of animals that died during the winter. The winter of 2014-2015 was long and caused the bears to hibernate longer, making them even more hungry than usual.

It is important to remember that bears can be food conditioned, meaning they learn where they can get food left by humans. Bears will continue to return to these places where they know they can expect food, like a garbage dump or your backyard, and will only stop their regular visits if the supply of food is interrupted. If you do see a bear, go indoors and call your local animal control office. They will inform you on how to proceed. They may also set up a trap to capture the bear.

Did you know? There are three species of bear found in Canada: black bear, grizzly bear, and polar bear. Polar bears and grizzlies tend to be more aggressive than black bears.Camping and hiking are popular activities with Canadians in the spring and summer, but any wilderness activity can bring surprises. If you do encounter a bear along the trail, pay close attention to its behaviour. It may appear defensive, with its ears down and the hair on its back standing up, while making some sounds. The bear might do a bluff charge: to show its dominance, it will run at you but stop about metre away. If this happens, slowly back away, keeping a low voice and letting the bear know you mean it no harm. On the other hand, the animal may appear predatory, with its ears up, while stalking you. If a predatory bear approaches you, stand your ground and start yelling to scare the bear away. Try and convince it you won’t make a very good meal!

Conservation and trophic cascades

Of course, wildlife encounters don’t only happen in Canada. Unfortunately, in many areas that don’t have proper wildlife protocols, people will simply kill any wildlife their perceive as a threat to their safety or livelihood. This, along with many other factors, has contributed to the decline of many carnivore species. And disappearing carnivores put local ecosystems at risk for a trophic cascade.

A trophic cascade happens when taking one organism out of a food chain has a dramatic effect on other species. For example, if a carnivore disappears, there will be an overabundance of prey that will overgraze, causing diminished vegetation. The removal of wolves from Yellowstone Park at the start of the twentieth century provides a good example of a trophic cascade. As wolves were killed, elk populations in Yellowstone increased and ate larger and larger amounts of willow. This hurt other species that also fed on willow, such as beavers. And because beaver dams provide good habitat for willow trees, the decline in beavers likely further harmed the willow population. Many years later, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone Park, triggering a reversal of the process and demonstrating the positive impact carnivores have on the overall health of an ecosystem.

Did you know? Because of warming temperatures in Ontario, new predators, such as coyotes, are likely to become common in northern communities.As governments and organizations such as World Wildlife Fund try to protect threatened species, there have been some successes. For example, there is evidence that cougars have returned to Ontario. These cats had previously been wiped out by hunters and local residents who feared their ferocity and aggressiveness. Hopefully, their relations with the province’s human population will be more peaceful this time around.

Ultimately, educating the population is often the best way to help mitigate human-wildlife conflicts. These animals are beautiful to look at, even if it’s just from your living room window. They have daily activities to do, just like you do. They need to survive and sometimes you share the same backyard. Just be sure to always keep a respectful distance.

Learn more!

Has the reintroduction of wolves really saved Yellowstone? (2014)
Emily Gertz, Popular Science

Wolf presence and increased willow consumption by Yellowstone elk: implications for trophic cascades (2009)
S. Creel & D. Christianson, Ecology 90
Link to abstract. Subscription or registration required to view full text.

Magazine article and scientific article discussing the wide-ranging effects of the removal of wolves from Yellowstone Park and their reintroduction.

Human-felid conflict: a review of patterns and priorities worldwide (2009)
C. Inskip & A. Zimmermann, Oryx: The International Journal of Conservation 43
Link to abstract. Subscription or registration required to view full text.

Scientific article providing an overview of research on conflict between humans and wild cats.

Black Bear Safety
Algonquin Provincial Park

Tips for avoiding and surviving bear encounters.

Krystal Rancourt

I have recently graduated from Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario and starting my master's at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. My research experience so far is evaluating predator-prey interactions for the wolverine in the Yukon Territory. In future years, I would like to contribute to conservation efforts towards Big Cat and Small Cat species all over the world. Studies in the winter also fascinate me and less information is collected during this season. I also enjoy reading, writing and hiking. Never let anyone tell you what you dream isn't possible!

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