A recent bear attack in Banff National Park, Canada, has shocked the nation and raised concerns about wildlife encounters in popular hiking destinations. One of the highlights of Banff has always been its beautiful and unique flora and fauna including its grizzlies and black bears. However, the nature of the Canadian Rockies has a fierce side—avalanches, bitter cold, and potentially aggressive animals. To enjoy everything Banff has to offer safely, it must be approached with respect. Visitors should properly educate themselves on the best safety practices for all of Canada’s outdoor activities.
Recent Rare Bear Attack
The recent rare bear attack occurred on Friday evening, September 30, 2023, in the Red Deer River Valley area of Banff National Park. Red Deer River Valley lies west of Ya Ha Tinda Ranch—approximately 150 kilometers (93.2 miles) from Calgary.
The victims, Doug Inglis, 62, and Jenny Gusse, 62, were experienced hikers who were exploring the park’s backcountry. Unfortunately, the encounter turned tragic when they crossed paths with a grizzly bear. Despite their best efforts to defend themselves—evidence proving one can of bear spray depleted—the bear inflicted severe injuries, resulting in the tragic loss of life.
Potential Causes of Bear Attacks
Bear attacks are not commonplace. Outside the recent tragedy, only three encounters have occurred in Banff National Park in the past ten years. And none of those three occurrences resulted in fatalities. Specific activities, however, can increase the chances of a dangerous bear encounter.
Proximity to Bear Habitat
Approximately 60 grizzly bears inhabit Banff National Park. While the Red Deer River Valley victims were not intentionally seeking out the bear or intruding upon its habitat, hikers need to be aware that bears can become more active in the fall as they forage for food in preparation for winter’s hibernation. The grizzly in this incident was also discovered to be leaner than she should have been for this time of year.
If you plan on hiking or any other remote outdoor activity in Banff National Park, it is a good idea to review recent bear reports and note area closures. The Parks Canada website maintains bear updates to help keep you apprised of recent bear activity within the national parks of the Canadian Rockies.
Backcountry Hiking & Camping
Doug Inglis and Jenny Gusse were hiking in the backcountry, away from marked trails. While exploring off the beaten path can be enticing, it also increases the chances of encountering wildlife, including bears. Stay on marked trails and pathways as much as possible. If you are going to engage in backcountry activities, be certain to acquire the proper permits and consider using GPS equipment to alert authorities of your status and location.
Improper Food Handling and Storage
Reports indicate that the victims had exercised all proper precautions in storing their supplies at their campsite. Food supplies and waste can draw hungry bears to your camp. Some backcountry areas have designated storage facilities. If no such facility is available, secure your food at least four meters (13.21 feet) and at least 1.3 meters (4.27 feet) away from side supports such as trees. You can also use bear-resistant canisters and trash cans.
Preventing a Bear Encounter—What You Need to Know
The best way to avoid a negative encounter with a bear while in Banff National Park is to know how to avoid one in the first place. Following these tips can help limit the possibility.
- Carry Bear Spray
Always carry bear spray in an easily accessible location, such as a holster on your belt. Ensure you know how to use it effectively by practicing beforehand.
- Stay on Marked Trails
Stick to designated trails whenever possible, as they are less likely to intersect with bear habitats. Avoid venturing into the backcountry alone.
- Make Noise
Bears are more likely to avoid humans if they are aware of their presence. Make noise while hiking, especially in areas with limited visibility, such as dense vegetation or around bends.
- Be Alert
Continuously scan your surroundings for signs of bear activity, such as tracks, scat, or overturned rocks. If you spot a bear, give it plenty of space and do not approach or attempt to feed it.
- Travel in Numbers
Explore the trails and backcountry of Banff in groups of four or more. Larger parties are less likely to run into trouble with Canada’s bears. If your party includes younger children, keep them close.
- Leash Your Dogs
Many of Banff’s trails and byways welcome our four-legged family members. However, should you be traveling with your pet, keep dogs firmly leashed. Dogs can unintentionally cause aggressive, defensive behavior in bears.
- Hike in the Daytime
Avoid moving about in the wilderness after the sun goes down. While bears are crepuscular, meaning they are generally most active at dawn and dusk, studies have shown that male grizzlies tend to be more active at night.
- Dispose of Camping Waste Properly
Do not store waste within 50 meters (164 feet) of your campsite. This includes garbage, dishwater, and fish remains. Bears have a keen sense of smell—on par with a bloodhound. Additionally, make sure to store it downwind of your site.
- Keep a “BARE” Campsite
To help ensure visitor safety and preserve the wildlife in Canada’s national parks, Parks Canada has established the Bare Campsite Program. The basic tenets of this program require campers to properly secure all food items, waste, and toiletries.
- Avoid and Report Dead Wildlife
Should you come across an animal carcass when exploring the trails and backcountry of the Canadian Rockies, steer a wide circle and report it to park authorities immediately.
What Do I Do If I See a Bear?
Even if you follow all the protocols to avoid a bear encounter, there is always a chance you could still find yourself in close proximity to a bear. To keep a chance meeting from turning into a negative encounter, there are certain steps you can take.
- Don’t Run!
Your first instinct in a bear encounter might naturally lean toward flight. However, running away suggests to the bear that you a prey. Flight can actually encourage an encounter to become negative.
Encountering a bear can be unnerving, but there is always a chance that even if you spot a bear, it is possible they may not even be aware of your presence. If it appears to be unaware, back away carefully and leave the area quickly and quietly.
If, however, the bear demonstrates defensive behavior—growling, pinned ears, snapping jaws—remain calm. Keep your bear spray at the ready and speak in a low, steady voice to the bear to indicate you are human and not a prey animal. Keep hold of any pack you may be carrying. It can serve as a layer of protection should the encounter suddenly turn.
What Do I Do If a Bear Approaches Me?
Bears may approach humans for multiple reasons. No matter the trigger, it is important to know what to do should a bear start toward you. Your response will depend upon whether the bear’s approach is defensive or nondefensive.
A bear’s behavior might be defensive if it is protecting its cub, if it is in the process of eating, or merely trying to demonstrate dominance. If the bear is vocal or appears agitated, there are some key actions you should take immediately.
- Don’t Scream or Yell
Or speak in an agitated manner. Stay calm and still and speak in an easy, even tone.
- Move Away Slowly
If a bear should stop its advance, slowly back away and remove yourself from the bear’s presence.
- Ready Your Bear Spray
If the bear continues to get closer to you, have your spray in hand and primed for use. Do not move and continue to speak calmly.
- Play Dead
Should the above actions fail to deter the bear from making contact, your best defense is to fall to the ground and play dead. According to Parks Canada’s bear safety guidelines, the best position for playing dead is as follows:
“Lie on your stomach with legs apart and position your arms so that your hands are crossed behind your neck. This position makes you less vulnerable to being flipped over and protects your face, the back of your head and neck.”
Avoid the temptation to move, remaining still, until the bear loses interest and moves away. Once the bear has left your immediate presence, slowly and quietly leave.
Even if a bear initiates defense-motivated contact, if the encounter lasts longer than two minutes or so, be aware that the encounter may be shifting to a predatory one. In this case, playing dead no longer serves your best interests. Fight back with your spray or rocks or branches within reach. If you can, escape up a tree, into a vehicle, or into a building if it is available.
Even rarer, are bear appearances in the town of Banff. However, nature can be wildly unpredictable. There are steps you can take to help avoid attracting bears into town. Should you see any refuse around town, please report it immediately to authorities on the emergency operations line, 403.762.1240. After hours, press 2 for an on-call emergency number. In an effort to preserve human life and wildlife, litter is considered an emergency in Banff. Learn more about Banff Bear Awareness.
Where Can I Get Bear Safety Training?
Articles like these are a great starting point for staying safe during wildlife encounters in Banff National Park, but there are resources visitors can use to further their knowledge of how to stay safe while exploring all Banff has to offer, including its wildlife.
Bear Safety & More offers both online and on-site bear safety training courses to help educate you on how to avoid bear encounters and prepare you should you have one. The 1.5-2-hour program introduces you to bear ecology, bear identification, how to recognize bear signs, how to avoid encounters, and what to do should you have one. The program also delves into the specifics of bear spray and highlights some other potentially dangerous wildlife you may encounter while in the park. A separate 35-minute course is offered on the proper use of bear spray.
The recent bear attack in Banff National Park serves as a tragic reminder of the potential dangers hikers may face when exploring wildlife-rich areas. Understanding the factors that contribute to such incidents, as well as implementing best bear safety practices, is crucial for both hikers’ safety and the preservation of these magnificent creatures. By respecting their habitat and following recommended guidelines, we can coexist with bears and enjoy the beauty of Banff National Park responsibly.