The Elaho grizzly: fight or flight?

July 22, 2018

A thrilling video of a grizzly bear ‘charging’ a kayaker on the Elaho River in Squamish, BC, has gone viral. While at first glance one might assume that this bear was charging those on the water, we believe there is an alternate description of the situation.

We often anthropomorphize or make assumptions about animal behaviour - especially with iconic species like grizzly bears. Bears are unique, complex creatures with drivers we don’t completely understand. Remember that wildlife communicates differently than people, and there is room for misinterpretation; while it’s always safest to err on the side of caution, we should not jump to conclusions when viewing wildlife behaviour.

The bear in the video appears to be young due to its small size.  It is extremely unusual for bears to charge at anything in deep water, especially a young bear, to protect food or otherwise.  It was reported the grizzly was feeding on an elk on the shoreline and there was conjecture it was protecting it.

A more likely story is that this bear was startled and made an instinctive choice to flee to a place where it felt more secure – in this case the opposite bank of the river, which may have been  where this bear came from in the first place.

After watching this footage, Tweedsmuir Park Lodge certified grizzly bear viewing guide Ellie Lamb explains that “as a rule, bears do not look at things floating in water as a threat. Therefore, perhaps this young bear is running from something on land, and the timing of the rafts and kayaks being on the water was coincidental.”

The behaviour of the bear once it is in the water supports this - it shows little interest in pursuing any of the watercraft, rather it seems focused on swimming between them to reach the other side. This indicates to us that the sub-adult bear was feeling vulnerable on the river bank, and with little regard for the kayaks and rafts, chose to use the river as a route to safety.

Wildlife veterinarian Dr Ken Macquisten outlined his perspective of the situation. “The fact that this young bear stumbles on a log at the beginning of the video makes me believe it is fleeing rather than charging. It may have been startled, and made a quick decision to return to where it came from. It’s a shame we can’t see what happened when the grizzly reached the opposite bank but I suspect it likely bolted into the forest once it got there. This was a startled bear, not an aggressive one, in my opinion.”  

Either way, there are too many unknowns to assume that this bear was being aggressive or attacking. Given our cultural and historical relationship with this persecuted animal, fear is often our first reaction. But moving past that fear is what is needed to conserve the species and ultimately establish people's deeper respect for nature.

This grizzly resides in the Squamish Lillooet region, and is part of a grizzly population unit that is designated as threatened by the Province of British Columbia, with an estimated 59 grizzly bears (at last count in 2012). With that in mind, a sighting like this is quite rare and pretty special! It’s also a good reminder that even in areas where grizzly bear populations are relatively low, they are still out there in the landscape, and must be considered if we are using the backcountry.

We believe that coexistence with grizzly bears is possible. In order to prevent negative encounters, small steps can be taken to change attitudes and reduce the element of surprise when living or recreating in nature. If you know you’re in grizzly bear habitat, make sure animals can hear you coming. We recommend carrying bear spray, keeping it accessible, and knowing how to use it. Be aware of your surroundings and know the signs that a grizzly bear may be around the corner (ie. berry bushes, long grass, crows cawing above). Respect the bear, and allow it the space it needs. Perhaps one day if you are lucky, you may have the thrilling experience of a grizzly bear happily enjoying its natural habitat.

Photo: Creative Commons 0.0

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