If you're planning a trip to northern Saskatchewan this summer, your chances of running into a black bear might be a bit higher than usual.
Jeff Smith runs an outfitting business near Choiceland, Sask., called Kutawagan Outfitters, and he's also the big game chairman for the Saskatchewan Commission of Professional Outfitters.
He said he's heard of more encounters with bears, and the increase seems to coincide with the fact that there was much less bear hunting this spring than usual.
"[Hunting] does help keep the bear numbers down because the bear has no enemies … so they just keep multiplying unless they're harvested," he said.
Smith said Saskatchewan outfitters take approximately 2,500 non-resident clients each year, most of whom are U.S. residents. Those hunters typically harvest 2,000 bears each season.
"Without any 2020 U.S. bear clients, it's fair to say the provincial forest now has 2,000 more bears roaming about than normal," Smith estimates.
The increase is small compared to the overall bear population in the province. Smith said he's heard estimates from the Ministry of Environment of 60,000-70,000 bears in the province, which would make the 2,000 extra bears a three per cent increase.
But Smith isn't the only person who has heard reports of increased bear activity.
Monica Osterhout with Prince Albert National Park previously told CBC there's been "quite a bit" of black bear activity in the park, both in the backcountry and even in the front country.
Smith said the increase in activity is "a really good indication that it's important to keep harvesting these bears," noting that the effect is noticeable after only one season.
The reduced hunting has had a huge impact on his livelihood, he says, but he notes it's having an impact on everyone else in the province, now, too.
"I think it's important that once the COVID is under control, that the border will open again and we can start harvesting bears again and … maybe there would be less negative interactions at the campsites, at the campgrounds."
Bear habituation an ongoing problem, says guide
Ric Driediger agrees that there have been more human-bear interactions but he says that's due to bear baiting — when hunters put food out to bears to draw them to a particular place.
Driediger is the owner of Churchill River Canoe Outfitters in Missinipe, Sask., and has been a guide in the area since 1973.
"They're willing to come right up to people in their campgrounds and in their campsites because they're used to eating the food that people give to them to eat," he said.
"This has been slowly increasing over the past 10 years or so and that coincides with bear hunting in this area, that coincides with bear baiting in this area."
If a bear comes into one of his camps looking for food, his policy is to chase it away. If it comes back, he says, you chase it away again — and then you pack up and leave because it will be back again.
He said in his first 20 years of guiding, he never had to move a campsite because of a bear and now it's fairly common.
"We hear about it pretty much every week that somebody had to move because of a bear and the only thing, in my view, that's changed is bear baiting."
Driediger says the 2,000-bear increase this year that Smith estimates will mean there will be more bears around but the bigger issue is that they've become accustomed to humans.
"If the bears are afraid of people then it's not an issue," he said.
"There's whole generations of bears now that are comfortable around the smell of humans because they've associated the smell of humans with food."
If you see a bear, don't run
One thing both Smith and Driediger agree on is what to do if you meet a bear.
Driediger says bears are curious but they're also timid, which is why you can scare them away.
"I deal with the bear by being bigger than the bear or at least try to make the bear feel that I'm bigger than it is," he said.
He also notes that it's "critically important" to keep a clean campsite — wash every surface that had food on it and put everything away in airtight containers.
"The bear that you meet in the wilderness was not interested in you as a person, they are interested in the food that you could provide," Driediger said.
Smith notes that if you do run into a bear, "stay cool" and slowly back away. Whatever you do, don't run.
"If you run, there's a good chance that they're going to think that you are something they can eat," Smith said. "Just make yourself look as big as possible. Holler at it, wave your arms up in the air and slowly back down yourself and get someplace to where you're safe."