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Wildlife safety: what to do if you encounter a bear, coyote or cougar

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Bears, coyotes, and cougars... oh my

We're so fortunate to live in such a beautiful province — with the ocean, lakes, mountains and forests — B.C. really has it all. And for those of us that like to get out and explore the natural beauty of our surroundings, encountering wildlife can be a part of the adventure.

Even for those that tend to stick more to city streets than hiking trails, with the growth of new development, many of these animals have found themselves in and around the city limits. Wildlife sightings in our cities and neighbourhoods have become more common in recent years.

Whether you're out for a walk around the block or camping in the backcountry, knowing what to do if you do have an encounter with a bear, cougar or coyote can help keep you calm and safe.

Two Black Bear Cubs Sitting on a Tree Branch up a Pine Tree.

Close encounters of the bear kind

The best way to prevent an unpleasant bear encounter is to avoid surprising them. If you're going hiking and camping, take a friend or two with you (the larger the group, the better). Make your presence known by talking, singing, whistling, or wear a bear bell. Most bears prefer to avoid contact with humans and will likely move away if they hear you coming.

However, there are some bears that have become habituated to people, especially if they hang out around the city, that they may not be bothered by having humans nearby. Chances are that you would still prefer to avoid the bear.

Below are tips for what and what not to do should you encounter a black bear. Note that black bears and grizzlies can behave differently when they come across a person or an unfamiliar situation.

Get started on safety by learning how to tell bears apart.

What to do when you encounter a bear:

  • Remain calm! Rounding a corner to find a bear can certainly get your heart pumping fast but the last thing you want to do is to panic and run.
  • Analyze the situation. Are there cubs presence? Is there a food source that the bear may want to defend?
  • Identify yourself to the bear in a calm, appeasing tone.
  • Back away slowly in the direction you came from while keeping your eye on the bear so you can see how it's reacting.

Most bear encounters will end as quickly as they started with the bear fleeing away. However, if it's a mother bear with cubs or a bear with a food source they may feel threatened and become defensive — swatting the ground, snorting, lunging or "bluff charging" are all tactics bears use to get us to go away. Spring is when you're more likely to encounter a mother bear and cubs as they emerge from their winter den.

What to do if a bear starts acting defensively

  • Talk to the bear in a calm manner as you back away.
  • If the bear moves closer to you and is about to make contact, use bear spray.
  • If the bear makes physical contact with you, fall to the ground and "play dead". Roll over onto your stomach and cover your neck and the back of your head with your hands. Don't get up until you are completely sure the bear is out of the area.

What to do in a non-defensive encounter

Sometimes a bear will approach in a non-defensive manner — likely out of curiosity. This can be more common in and around the city where bears have become habituated to us and conditioned to getting food in places humans are present.

If you find yourself in one of these situations, here's what to do:

  • Talk in a firm voice and get out of its way if you can.
  • If the bear follows you in a non-defensive way, stand your ground and start to act aggressively — shout at the bear, make yourself as big as possible and even wave a stick or whatever you have handy in the air.

Get more bear safety tips.

Mountain Lion on moss covered rocks during spring time

Cougar caution

Encounters between humans and cougars are extremely rare; however cougar sightings do seem to be on the rise, even in populated areas — like these three who were caught on camera in Port Moody in early May.

As with bears, the best thing you can do to prevent an encounter with a cougar is to stay in groups and make noise as you walk to avoid surprising one. Keep small children and pets on-leash — a small dog can be seen as prey and attract a cougar.

What to do if you encounter a cougar:

  • Never approach a cougar.
  • Remain calm and do not run — running away may trigger a cougar's predatory instinct to chase.
  • Pick up small children — the fast movements of a frightened child may be seen as a threat and provoke the cougar.
  • Back away slowly from the cougar while facing it.
  • Try and make yourself as big as possible — pick up a stick or branches and wave them around. Don't crouch down.

What to do if a cougar starts acting defensively:

  • Assert yourself by speaking loudly and firmly to convince the cougar you're a threat and not prey.
  • Pick up a large stick and wave it towards the cougar or throw rocks.
  • If the cougar does attack, fight back!
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Coyotes in the city

At first glance, a coyote can easily be mistaken for a medium-sized dog. However, coyotes tend to be naturally fearful of people and will often slink away at the sight of you.

If however, a coyote doesn't take off, or is hanging around in your yard. Below are some helpful tips for what you should do.

What to do when you encounter a coyote:

  • Make yourself as big as possible to try and intimidate the coyote.
  • Make loud noises — bang pots and pans, blow a whistle or air horn — to try and scare the coyote off.
  • Pick up any small children or pets. Never allow your dog to approach a coyote.

Coyotes often act more aggressively towards dogs during mating season (January to March) so it's best to keep your pets leashed. Picking up after your dog is also important as canine feces can be a coyote attractant.

Tips to help keep wildlife out of your neighbourhood

We're fortunate to share our province with wildlife and it is our responsibility to ensure our actions don’t put their safety and the safety of our communities at risk.

The search of food is the single biggest reason wildlife comes into our communities and if their search is successful, it's very hard to get them to leave. This puts the animal at risk as it loses its fear of humans and can become a safety concern for residents.

Here are some important tips to help keep wildlife away from your home:

  • Never feed wildlife. Doing so will encourage the animal to return to the area.
  • Don’t leave food or water out for your pets as this can attract wildlife.
  • Keep garbage in animal-proof bins in a secured area and only take out for pick-up on garbage day.
  • Keep small children close by and pets on leash.
  • Don't allow pets to roam at night.
  • Pick fruit off any fruit trees and off the ground if any has fallen.
  • Install motion sensor lights around your property.

For more information more safety tips and information on the wildlife species found in our beautiful province, check out WildSafeBC.