Bears are one of the many natural hazards in northern parks. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) can injure or even kill people. What you know about polar bears and how you behave around them will increase your safety and theirs. The great white bear can exhibit violent aggression towards people. Your knowledge of polar bears is important to the safety of yourself, others and the polar bears.
You should always be aware of the possibility of an encounter when travelling in areas where there are polar bears. Before travelling on foot, or going to a camp, talk with Parks personnel about possible bear activity in those areas. Areas may be closed due to bear activity. Heed written and oral warnings. Learn about the areas used by polar bears at the season of your visit. Avoid them if possible. Avoid areas where any of the following occur: polar bear tracks, droppings, holes dug in the snow at seal holes, seal carcasses, and polar bear dens. Consider hiring a guide if you are uncertain about the nature of polar bears. Always be alert for polar bears. On rare occasions they will stalk and try to kill people. Don't give a polar bear the opportunity to sneak up on you. Try not to travel when visibility is poor. Be extra careful in areas where terrain features such as boulders or pressure ridges might conceal a polar bear. Carry deterrents and know how to use them. Be sure they will be available on arrival if you are not able to buy them before you leave home. Some deterrents cannot easily be shipped. Check with Parks officials to see which deterrents are recommended. Travelling in groups increases your safety. Carrying an HF radio gives you a chance to contact help in an emergency.
Polar bear safety essentials
All bears are dangerous.
Polar bears are predators. Occasionally, they will try to prey on people.
Always be alert for bears. Try not to travel when visibility is poor.
Be extra alert in areas where terrain features such as boulders or pressure ridges might conceal a polar bear.
Learn about bears - anticipate and avoid possible encounters.
Consider hiring a guide in polar bear country.
Carry deterrents and know how to use them.
Consider carrying a high frequency (HF) radio in case an emergency occurs.
Remember, it is unlawful under the National Parks Act to feed, touch or disturb a bear.
Photographing polar bears can be particularly dangerous.
Odours attract bears. Eliminate or reduce odours from yourself and your camp. If possible, store food so bears can't smell or get at it.
When hiking or camping, properly store and pack out all garbage.
You are responsible for your safety and the safety of others.
Polar bear behaviour around people
Like people, bears are individualistic and each has a distinct personality. It is possible to predict patterns of behaviour but actions of unknown individuals are as hard to predict as would be those of a stranger. Most bears normally avoid people, however, polar bears may approach because they are curious about you. Such approaches are not necessarily aggressive. Any bear that approaches should cause you to prepare to use deterrents. Polar bears have behavioural responses that imply curiosity, agitation or predation.
When a bear is approaching, its behaviour should be carefully observed. Any of the following behaviours suggest a curious bear:
Standing on four feet and moving slowly
Stopping frequently and sniffing the air
Holding its head high with ears forward or sticking out
Moving its head from side to side or lifting its nose up into the air to test the wind and catch a scent. Like other bear species, a polar bear will often circle downwind and approach from behind to catch the scent of a person.
An agitated polar bear has different behaviours. These include:
Making a loud huffing sound
Snapping its jaws to make loud sounds
Staring directly at a person
Lowering its head below shoulder level with ears back and pressed against the side of its head. The head may be swaying back and forth sideways. Sometimes they may stamp their feet. Bluff charges by polar bears are rare. A charging polar bear should be interpreted as a bear intent on injuring a person.
Polar bears will get used to people (habituated), no longer readily fleeing from them, if they are repeatedly exposed to people. Bears habituated to people may appear tame or neutral. They are not. They tolerate closer approaches than do other bears, but all bears have a varying critical distance which may lead to attack when intruded upon by a person.
Causes and avoidance of polar bear attacks
An approaching polar bear should always be watched and its behaviour monitored to determine your response. If possible, a person should go immediately to a secure place such as a building. If there is time, move upwind of the bear so it can get a positive scent identification on you. If not, and there is time and opportunity, deterrents should be used.
If this fails and you are closely approached or attacked by a polar bear, then try to get away or continue to try to deter the bear. Any potential weapon should be considered, such as skis, blocks of ice or even knives. Group action, such as making a lot of noise, may help to drive a polar bear away.
A comprehensive search for records of polar bear inflicted injuries in Canada revealed four deaths and 15 additional injuries occurred between 1970-85. Fifteen of these cases, including the four deaths, were due to actual or attempted predation by the polar bear. In the North, hundreds of polar bears have been shot or deterred over the years because people thought the bear might attack. Four cases of injury occurred when females with young apparently attacked in defence of their young after people approached too close or surprised them. If attacked under such circumstances and there is no method of defence or escape, you have a good chance of surviving if you play dead and assume the cannonball position, protecting your face and neck. This position should be maintained if possible until the bear has left the area.
Run The Planet thanks the Parks Canada website (http://pch.gc.ca) for the permission to reprint the article "Safety in Polar Bear Country."