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Tips for biking into bear country

How to avoid a wildlife encounter, and what to do if a bear or cougar is near
 | June 27, 2022
Photo: Sam Egan.

Sharing the woods with wildlife can be a thrilling element of trail riding, but it’s important to be prepared in the case of an encounter. 

According to WildSafeBC, British Columbia is home to roughly 3,500 cougars, 8,000 wolves and up to 250,000 black bears — all of which can be found in the forests of Sun Peaks.

The organization says mountain bikers have a heightened risk of running into wildlife because riders travel quickly and relatively quietly, and because wildlife like to share the trails as the path of least resistance through the forest.

However, most wildlife will try to avoid humans if they know they’re coming, so taking steps to avoid a surprise encounter is key. 

Preventing a wildlife encounter

Before heading out on the trails in a rich wildlife area like Sun Peaks, consult WildSafeBC’s online Wilderness Alert Reporting Program to scan the area for recent sightings. 

If a biker intends to bring along bear spray, they should inspect its condition, be informed on how to use it, and carry it on themselves rather than on the bike in case of a collision. (Yes, people have hit bears while biking in Sun Peaks.)

WildSafeBC also suggests paying careful attention to the approaching terrain and trail surroundings while riding. Watch for food sources like berries that animals could be feeding on, or fresh scat indicating they’ve passed through. 

Slow down and use extra vigilance where sight lines are poor, like blind corners, thick bush or crests of hills. Riding into the wind or around running water can also mask smell and sound for animals down the trail.

Smaller groups of just one or two bikers make less noise, so having a larger group helps reduce the likelihood of running into bears or other wildlife on the trails. 

Making vocal noises is the best way to let wildlife know someone is coming. Bear bells won’t cut it — animals don’t recognize the high-pitched sound as human and it doesn’t penetrate very deep into the forest.

Bringing a dog along on the trails can complicate things. Bears and cougars can see dogs as a threat or prey, and therefore attacks on dogs are much more common than attacks on humans.

Reacting to a wildlife encounter

Bears are the most common animal of concern bikers encounter in the forests of British Columbia. WildSafeBC says if a rider notices a bear that is unaware of the human’s presence, they should slowly back away while keeping an eye on the animal, then choose a different route.

If the bear becomes aware, the biker should speak softly and back away calmly, while making themselves look as big as possible. Black bears will usually send their cubs up a tree or into the forest to protect them, so don’t block their retreat. Also don’t linger or try to take a photo, and if the bear leaves, don’t follow. 

Don’t yell at a bear or run away, as this could instigate an attack. If a bear is showing signs of agitation like jaw popping, salivating, moaning or even bluff charging, give it some personal space. Avoid eye contact and back away slowly.

If the bear does charge, don’t run. If the biker has bear spray, they should use it once the bear is about five to 10 metres away. Otherwise, the human should fall to their stomach at the last moment and hold their hands behind their neck to protect the back of their head. WildSafeBC suggests not crying out, and that the rider should keep their legs slightly apart to keep from being turned over. 

Wait until the attack is over and the bear has left — but fight back if it becomes predatory.

If a bear is quietly approaching without showing signs of agitation, it might just want to use the trail, so give it a clear exit. If it keeps coming, it may be predatory. If it isn’t protecting a cub or a meal, act assertively and yell at the bear.

Mountain bikers may also encounter cougars on the trails, but cougar attacks are very rare. The riders should keep calm, make themselves look as large as possible and back away slowly. Keep the cougar in view, giving it a clear exit. If there are small children around, the adult should pick them up because they’ll be most vulnerable. 

If the cougar does attack, always fight back and never fall to the ground. 

For more information on reducing human-wildlife conflicts, visit wildsafebc.com.

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