While bear attacks are rare, the death of a woman Sept. 1 from an apparent bear attack on a Rainy Lake island should remind people that they coexist with wild animals and must take precautions, said wildlife officials.
Rainy River Ontario Provincial Police reported they were called shortly after 6:30 p.m. Sept. 1 to Red Pine Island, about four miles north of Voyageurs National Park Rainy Lake Visitor Center, by the mother of the victim, Catherine Sweatt-Mueller, of Maple Plains, Minn.
The victim's mother told officers she believed Sweatt-Mueller had been attacked by a bear after she had gone to check on her dogs, and didn't return to the cabin. Officers investigated, and found Sweatt-Mueller deceased, and in close proximity to a bear. The bear was shot and killed by police. There were two other bears at the scene. Police later said they believed they were yearlings, and were threatening toward the officers. The island is southwest of Sandpoint Island Provincial Park, just across the Minnesota-Ontario border.
Andrew N. Tri, a wildlife research biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Bear Research Program, said Minnesota has had no fatalities from bears.
"We have had eight attacks that have resulted in serious hospitalization, of which one was a bear with encephalitis, so that leaves seven where the bear was healthy," Tri said. One of these attacks - in the BWCA in 1987 - would be classified as predatory, where the bear actively sought out and stalked humans.
"Despite this tragic situation, yes, this is an unfortunate reminder that we are coexisting with wild animals and should take precautions," he said. "My heart and sympathy goes out to the victim’s family and the community on Rainy."
Wildlife officials have noted that people have lived with bears through time, and need to continue to take precautions to respond appropriately when they see bears and to remove any bear attractants from their area.
Tri said bears, generally, have similar behaviors when they feel threatened.
"They clack their jaws, they will make a 'huff' sound - a quick exhale of breath, they will sometimes swat the ground or a tree nearby, and as a last resort, they will bluff charge, where they charge at you, but veer off at the last possible second.”
"Seeing a bear in the wild is a really special thing and is one that should be enjoyed, but if a bear exhibits any of these signs, you are too close and it is nervous," he said.
Tri offered the following should people see a bear:
- Enjoy the experience. Seeing a bear is a pretty special thing because not everybody gets to live in a place where bears exist.
- Don't panic, don't shoot, but don't approach it.
- Remember, these are wild animals and should be given the space and respect that entails.
- Give the bear plenty of space and always leave it an escape route.
- Don’t run from a bear, just back away slowly and leave the bear alone.
- If the bear approaches or doesn’t flee, make loud noises, make yourself seem big, throw something at it, and often you can chase the bear away.
- Do not try to outrun a bear or climb a tree. Bears are fast and good climbers. Running may trigger a chase response.
- Keep your dogs on a leash and near you. Bears are scared of them and dogs add unpredictability to a situation.
- If a bear is treed (in your yard for example), leave it alone, have people leave the area, and keep the dogs inside. The bear will leave when it feels safe.
However, Tri said the best way to avoid bear problems is to not attract them in the first place.
"Living in bear country requires vigilance by the homeowner to remove attractants," he said.
- Secure your trash and do not put it out until the morning of trash collection.
- Do not feed deer or birds when bears are out of their dens (April 1–Oct. 31). Feeding bears (even unintentionally through feeding other wildlife) rarely ends well for the bear. If you do decide to feed wildlife during the summer, your actions can result in nuisance bear problems for you, your neighbors, or your community.
- Clean up fallen fruit from fruit trees (apples, crabapples, plums, etc.).
- Clean your barbecue grills off after use and clean grease traps each time you use the grill.
- Keep a mindful watch on your dogs and keep them on a leash when in the woods (or at least keep close control of them while hunting) so as not to spook a bear.
- Make noise when out in the woods so you don’t surprise a bear. There are commercial bear bells that let a bear know you are coming, but singing, talking, or clapping will also do the trick.
- If you feel uncomfortable with bears in the woods, purchase a can of bear spray. Bear spray has been shown to be 90 percent effective in stopping a bear’s undesirable behavior.