By Jen Dart
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and Clayoquot Sound are home not only to roughly 2,000 year-round residents and some 20,000 daily visitors in the summer, but also several populations of large mammals.
Black bears, wolves and cougars are also year-round inhabitants of the Tofino area, and it’s important to be aware how to manage possible encounters with these remarkable animals.
Obviously, the safest type of viewing opportunity is a wildlife viewing tour by boat. Black bear sightings often also occur by the side of the road or while hiking in the area.
Parks Canada maintains a strict mandate of not disturbing or feeding any wildlife (feeding wildlife is in fact illegal within national parks), including bears.
Too many traffic accidents have occurred when excited motorists stop suddenly or worse, pull over to feed or disturb bears.
When hiking or otherwise enjoying nature in bear country, there are several precautions you can take to avoid an encounter, including hiking in a group and staying in open areas as much as possible.
If you do encounter a bear, don’t run. Bears can easily outrun you, and this behaviour could trigger an altercation. Stay in a group and pick up small children. Give the bear space while backing away slowly and speaking in a soft voice. Pacific Rim has issued further guidelines for potentially more dangerous encounters, which are rare.
There are many important steps to take when using wild areas, including observing any cautions or closures issued by Parks staff. Also, dogs should be leashed at all times.
When camping, never allow wildlife to access food, garbage, toiletries or any other camping gear.
Greenpoint Campground in Pacific Rim has been observing a bare campsite policy for many years, with great success and few wildlife encounters.
Another project, called the WildCoast Project, has been ongoing since 2003. This project, which is a collaboration between staff at Pacific Rim and several others experts, aims to minimize conflicts between those living in and enjoying the area and large carnivores.
While wolf and cougar encounters are uncommon, the project was precipitated by a wolf attack on a kayaker in Clayoquot Sound in 2000.
Encounters continued to increase, as did evidence of the increasing boldness and sometimes aggressive of the animals. There are many theories for this change in behaviour, including changing deer habitat (deer are prey for both wolves and cougars. When the area was being logged heavily, deer were often found in forest clearings. These spaces have diminished and deer may have become more difficult for these carnivores to locate).
Firstly, it’s important to keep wolves and cougars wild and wary of humans. That means not habituating them to the presence of humans or offering rewards such as food attractants left in the open.
Keeping attractants secure at home and in the wilderness, as well scaring the animals away if they get too close are the main things to keep in mind.
If you happen to encounter a wolf or cougar in the wild, pick up small children and maintain your group. Make and maintain eye contact with the animal while waving your arms and shouting.
In other words, do everything you can to appear larger and scare the animal away.
If the animal isn’t backing down, you must back away slowly while not turning your back and maintaining eye contact. As with bears, you must create space between you and the animal. If the situation escalates, use whatever is at hand, such as stones, sticks or pepper spray to strike out at the animal. Strike the animal in the eyes and nose if possible.
However unlikely it is that you will encounter one of the West Coast’s large mammals while enjoying the area, it’s important to be informed of how to defend yourself and those in your group.
In this area, reporting any sightings or encounters to Parks staff will assist in their ongoing research and public safety initiatives. Please also observe any trail or area closures posted.
For more information about living with wildlife, please visit the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve website.
Images: Shayne Kaye, Robert Dewar