The bears and us:

🕔Sep 23, 2009

Last year in northern BC nearly 200 bears were deemed to be a problem and destroyed by residents or conservation officers.

They were drawn into communities in search of food, most often because of garbage left unattended, fruit trees left unharvested, and other attractants. In recent years, a black bear was shot and killed by a fisheries officer while munching on Saskatoon berries in Taylor Bachrach’s Telkwa backyard. It was all that the homeowner, now a Telkwa village councillor, needed to instigate change in his community.

“The problem isn’t the bears, the problem is the people. So, it’s actually like a human management program,” Bachrach says. “If we can reduce human negligence, then we can also reduce the number of bears that get killed, and I think that’s a good thing. Bears are part of what makes living here unique.”

Telkwa is now embarking on the process to become a Bear Smart community. The program focuses on reducing the attractants that draw bears into dangerous situations and marks the first steps in reducing bear mortality within communities. Once a community is Bear Smart, aversive conditioning techniques—which use non-lethal methods like rubber bullets and Karelian bear dogs to deter bears from populated areas—can be implemented.

But with funding for Bear Smart currently suspended, it’s becoming harder than ever for communities to take the first steps in reducing bear-human conflict.

In Prince George alone, an average of 47 bears are destroyed every year. Biologist Lana Ciarniello,with Northern Bear Awareness—the organization working toward Bear Smart status for the area—says the city has the highest bear death rate in the province.

“Can the population sustain that? We don’t know,” she says, adding that just because more bears are being seen doesn’t mean that they are higher in number. Living at the confluence of two major rivers, which represent travel corridors for bears, the city sits on a collision course for bear-human conflict.

“With a lot of continuous, undeveloped land around us, we’re smack in the middle of bear habitat,” she says. “So we have a lot of habitat, a lot for a bear to live in, and they get drawn in.”

The community has completed a bear hazard assessment, the first phase in Bear Smart’s six-step program, with a bear-human conflict management plan currently underway. With funding no longer available, the process is moving ahead entirely under the steam of volunteer efforts. After twice rejecting the move, the city passed a resolution this June that supports moving toward Bear Smart status.
“It requires a lot of change and money on the part of the city,” Ciarniello says. “This is going to require a bylaw in which your garbage is only allowed to be out for a certain number of hours.”

Change in your backyard
Properly bear-proofing a community requires bylaws that limit the amount of time garbage can be left curbside, require the maintenance of fruit trees, create proper garbage storage and outlaw bear attractants like birdfeeders. Canmore, Alberta passed bylaws against composting and birdfeeders in the late 1990s. It also discontinued curbside garbage pickup, instead installing bear proof garbage bins around the community.

With attractants under control and aversive conditioning measures in place, Canmore’s Bow Valley Wildsmart program is able to focus efforts on education. In its first year, education program director Kim Titchener spoke to 1,200 people. Since then, it’s averaged about 5,500 per year, she says.

“It’s gotten bigger and bigger and bigger since then,” she says about the program that is funded, in part, by Alberta Parks, the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development, private donors, corporate sponsor LaFarge, Alberta Ecotrust and local municipalities. “This is the only program that I know of that goes to this extent in Canada.”

The Municipal District of Bighorn to the east and Parks Canada, which has jurisdiction over the area to the west, have passed similar bylaws in their communities and, as a result, the entire Bow Valley sees much lower bear mortality rates due to problem bears. Though a recent year saw about a dozen bears killed or relocated, Titchener says, that number is especially high for the area.

In British Columbia, the Whistler Bear Aversive Conditioning Research Project is the only formal bear aversion program in the province. Although the community does not have its Bear Smart status, it has taken several steps in the process, such as providing bear-proof garbage storage.

“You can’t keep a bear out of conflict if you don’t do something about the attractants. It’s just completely pointless. You can chase a bear around until you’re blue in the face and he’ll just come back as soon as you’re gone,” says University of Alberta Masters student Lori Homstol, who leads the program. “They thought they were pretty good and then when we started radio collaring some bears and seeing what they were doing, we’re like, OK—we have some issues to fix.”

Between 2006 and 2008, roughly 10 problem bears were destroyed each year in Whistler. The population estimate for the area is 100 bears: “So we’re basically killing at least 10 percent of the estimated population in each of the last three years,” Homstol says.
Sylvia Dolson, executive director with the Get Bear Smart Society in Whistler, did aversive conditioning training with enforcement officers in the Prince Rupert, Terrace and Kitimat areas in 2005.

“So there has been some training (in the North). It’s not an official Parks program in that area, as far as I know, and there hasn’t been any training of new officers or members since then,” Dolson says.

“The situation is improving. There are fewer bears being killed province-wide. Ten and 15-year averages are all going down for both black and grizz, which is great.”

Funding disappears
However, for aversive conditioning to be implemented in the North, communities need to first deal with attractants, something that will be more difficult to do without Bear Smart funding.

Through Bachrach’s initiative, Telkwa received $10,000 last year from the Ministry of Environment, the maximum grant available to a community, to begin its Bear Smart program. The community has conducted a bear hazard assessment that will be used as the groundwork for creating a bear-human conflict management plan.
This summer, Bear Smart Telkwa put its plans into action by purchasing bear-proof garbage containers for its public parks.

Between 2000 and 2008, the province invested more than $2.5 million in the Bear Smart Community Program and the Bear Aware education program. Last year there was $225,000 available for Bear Smart, significantly higher than the $175,000 and $140,000 available the previous two years. But this year Bear Smart funding completely dried up, with no grants available for communities that would like to embark on the program.

Mike Badry, Wildlife Conflicts Prevention Coordinator, Ministry of Environment, says the province will extend non-lethal management, such as aversive conditioning, into communities once Bear Smart is in place, but he couldn’t comment on when Bear Smart funding might return.

Although BC doesn’t have any Bear Smart communities at this point, two in the southern region have submitted applications that are under review and many others have initiated the process.

“If you really want to do something for bears, the best thing you can do is go to the Bear Smart community program,” says bear biologist Debbie Wellwood, who worked on the Bear Smart Community Background Report, which was completed in 2001. She says that while it might be too late to save a bear that’s comfortable enough to rummage through your garbage bins, putting energy and resources into programs like Bear Smart is the best way to prevent further bear mortality.

“For as long as we’ve been a province—or even longer—we’ve been reacting to bear problems,” Wellwood says. “We need a culture change, that’s what we need—and it’s going to take a long, long time.