For many wildlife officials, an encounter with a bear isn’t quite as intimidating as an encounter with a reporter.
So when conservation officers gathered from across North America in Whitehorse this week to learn how to respond to a wildlife attack on a human, effectively dealing with the media was part of their training.
That’s where I came in.
On Wednesday afternoon the officers split out in groups to test their chops responding to a simulated wildlife attack scenario.
I played the part of the pushy reporter, eager for a story while the scene is fresh and there is still an injured bear in the area.
My group dealt with the aftermath of a polar bear attack. This may not be a believable scenario here in Whitehorse, but appropriate for officers who came in from other parts of the North for the training.
In fact, our scene was based loosely on a real polar bear attack last year in Churchill, Manitoba, that sent two people to hospital.
In yesterday’s scenario, I presumably heard something about a polar bear attack on the police scanner and raced to the scene, on a trail behind some Takhini homes. I arrived just as the team of five conservation officers were preparing to approach the site of the attack.
The two officers charged with keeping the public out of the area weren’t quite sure how to react when their vague promises that an information officer would soon arrive on the scene didn’t immediately stop my barrage of questions.
It really threw them for a loop when I began to eavesdrop on what the mock-RCMP officer on the scene was telling wildlife officials, and relaying those details back to the office through my cellphone.
But when someone wearing a polar bear hide emerged from the bush, charging towards a bystander, the officers were ready.
They quickly drew their fake rifles and took down the fake bear with a couple of fake gunshots.
But their work was far from over. They still knew very little about what happened, and only a few feet away lay the fake victim, a 70-year-old man named Nester who was mauled and died in the attack.
The conservation officers’ job at that point was to investigate a trail of carefully-laid clues left by the scenario instructors. Every detail, down to a single drop of blood on a pair of sunglasses found near the scene, had significance.
Imprints on the trail in the shape of polar bear paws were mostly wiped away as the conservation officers moved through the area. They might have noticed them the first time through if their thoughts hadn’t been elsewhere, with the dangerous bear still on the loose.
There were clues in the blood-spatter on the trees, in the .22 rifle and shells scattered around the victim.
A call from the local hospital, relayed by the mock-RCMP officer, informed the officers that a second victim had fled the scene and was being treated for her injuries.
She had left behind a backpack, a toque, a pair of glasses and a couple blood-stained hand prints on trees nearby.
The officers inspected the wounds on the mannequin-corpse with the help of the mock-coroner, who is in real life also a coroner.
By comparing the teeth of the bear with the wounds on the man they could say with near-certainty that the dead bear was responsible for the man’s death.
By looking for .22 bullet holes in the dead bear, they could again link that bear with the woefully ineffective weapon found at the man’s side.
In a real scenario, officers would have spent hours or even days carefully piecing together the clues, interviewing witnesses and the surviving victim.
But for lack of time, instructors James Zucchelli from B.C. and Todd Ponich from Alberta guided them along with helpful hints.
Here’s what happened:
A woman was walking on the residential trail when a bear charged at her.
A man heard her screams from his home, and came out with his .22. He distracted the bear long enough for her to run away, but then the bear came for him.
The six rounds he managed to fire off before the bear was on top of him were only enough to enrage him, and the man was killed.
A witness came after hearing screams. She saw the bear on top of the man and chased him down a nearby ridge.
That’s exactly where the bear came back at them from, in the moment of confusion when the coroner had just arrived on scene from the side of the trail that had not yet been cordoned off with police tape.
The officers would have known which direction the bear had fled if they had bothered to ask the witness, who they were able to speak with when they first arrived on the scene.
But as reporters know all too well, it’s hard to ask the right questions when you’re working with limited information, especially under pressure.
Wildlife attacks on humans are rare, and fatal attacks rarer still. But when they happen, conservation officers must be prepared not only to do their own work but also to deal with police, paramedics, coroners, scientists, and of course the dreaded reporters who are likewise just trying to get their jobs done.
This week’s seminar, hosted by Environment Yukon, marks the fourth time since 2006 that professionals from across the continent have come together for Wildlife Human Response Attack Training. This year’s session included 160 participants and 35 volunteers from as far away as Russia, Norway and Arizona.
As a result of this training, officials will be better prepared to work together in response to wildlife attacks.
And of course, they will also be better prepared to deal with the peskiest of wildlife, the intrepid and persistent reporter.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at