Keeping the bears out of harm's way
The day’s last light was fading and the first flakes of snow were falling outside the window, when a large black bear came ambling down the slope into the flower bed.
There he began vigorously digging a hole, tossing plants aside as he went.
A loud rap on the window sent him scurrying through the trees to the road, but the damage had been done in the garden.
What if someone had come around the corner of the house and surprised that big animal?
Others tell of watching as a large black bear ambled up their residential street, systematically exploring every driveway for garbage bins left out or other treats to eat, knocking over bins and laying down in the mess of trash in the road, while chewing on whatever was available.
West Kelowna mayor Doug Findlater relates an incident early in the year when a bear that had become habituated to scrounging in people’s garbage became too aggressive for conservation officers to ignore any longer.
They shot the bear, and Findlater says the incident upset his wife for days.
There have been 544 bear complaints since April 1 this year, up significantly from the 467 calls the previous year in the Central Okanagan, and from the 435 the previous year, reports Conservation Officer Terry Myroniuk.
With so many bears in conflict with residents in the Central Okanagan this fall, Myroniuk admits he’s dreading spring because he knows when they awake with the same habits, some of those animals will have to be killed—and that’s the worst part of his job.
“We get a bit of a break when they go to sleep, but they will be back next spring,” he says ruefully.
The worst of it is fall is not only the busiest time of year for problem bears, but also for the work Myroniuk says they really should be focussed on.
“We’re supposed to be out there protecting our natural resources from poachers and polluters, not destroying bears,” he explains.
“The law-abiding public wants us to be out there upholding the hunting and fishing laws and investigating infractions of environmental regulations.”
Even so, COs only handle bear complaints if life or property are being put at risk by aggressive bear behaviour.
As bears become more habituated to eating human garbage, bird feed, pet food, rotting fruit and nuts, there’s an increased risk of those bears becoming aggressive toward humans, Myroniuk explains.
Attacks by bears can be either defensive (particularly if they have young with them), or predatory.
“A person can come around the corner of the house and surprise a sow with cubs and there’s a real risk of her attacking,” he warns.
And, as long as bears are frequenting a neighbourhood and no one is reporting their behaviour because they fear the bear might be killed, those residents are putting the whole neighbourhood at risk, Myroniuk adds.
Instead, aggressive or unusual behaviour should be reported to the Report All Poachers and Polluters toll-free line at: 1-877-952-7277.
Unfortunately, people are becoming more willing to co-habitate with bears, but they should realize they are still large, wild predators and they can do a lot of harm, he warns.
“People see them as fluffy, furry and cute. They seem soft and roly-poly, but you don’t want to become complacent about the potential danger. Some people even feed them.
“It’s important to be realistic about them. They can move very quickly when they need to,” he adds.
Relocating bears that have become accustomed to eating in residential neighbourhoods is not only extremely traumatic for the animal, but also usually unsuccessful, as they almost always find their way back to human settlements, he says.
When they have to deal with habituated bears who have become more and more aggressive, there’s no point in just moving them somewhere else.
High quality feed
Gardens, orchards and garbage can sustain an infinite number of bears, notes Myroniuk, and there isn’t much in place to control their population growth in urban areas.
In the absence of hunting, they don’t have many predators and with adequate food available, they can live for as long as 25 years naturally.
Urban bears frequently have twins instead of a single cub because of the easy conditions they live under.
It can take a whole day for a bear foraging in the wild to match what he can consume in five minutes of rummaging through human garbage, says Myroniuk, so why wouldn’t they move into residential areas instead of living in the wild?
“Life is easy,” he says.
What he finds particularly frustrating about this community is the unwillingness of people to pick their own fruit or nuts to prevent them from attracting bears, yet they won’t tolerate the presence of the bears when they come sniffing around.
“People even get irate with me, as if it was me who created the problem, when actually it’s up to each individual to prevent these conflicts by not attracting wildlife,” comments Myroniuk.
When he worked with the CO service in the Fraser Valley, local governments brought in the Bear Aware program, and there was a dramatic decrease in conflicts with the big bruins, he says.
It’s a program that’s currently being operated by the adjacent Okanagan-Similkameen Regional District, by coordinator Zoe Kirk, and CO Inspector Barb Leslie says they’re noticing quite a difference in bear complaints in that part of the valley.
For instance, in Naramata they were being frequently called out to deal with bears, with a total of 115 complaints a year, and as many as 10 having to be put down.
This year, Kirk says only one bear had to be destroyed there, and it was a very sick animal. As well, she says there were only a couple of dozen calls, most of which were about that bear.
“The community works with me to keep bears out of the community,” she says.
Leslie says that allows the CO service to do their job and use some ‘averse conditioning’ to reinforce what the community is doing. However, she says first the community has to stop attracting bears.
“As long as the food sources remain, we can’t do much,” she comments.
Under the Wildlife Act, she says residents attracting dangerous wildlife can be charged and ticketed, with a fine of $345 if they leave attractants such as garbage out.
Frank Ritcey, provincial coordinator of the Bear Aware program for the B.C. Conservation Foundation, says the program began in 1999, when 1,000 bears a year were being destroyed. That’s been halved, even though the program isn’t in place everywhere in the province.
With 203 complaints so far this year in Kelowna, 190 in West Kelowna and 114 in Peachland, he says there’s a real need for the program in the Central Okanagan.
The BCCF will put a trained community coordinator in place who will educate the public.
That includes going door-to-door in areas where there are complaints about bears, and showing them how to manage the attractants; and school programs; as well as displays at public events and farmers’ markets.
“It’s not the bear that’s the problem,” he says.
People who are concerned about this year’s proliferation of bears in local neighbourhoods, need to contact councillors and regional district representatives and suggest a Bear Aware program begin here.
There are several options, including a volunteer program run by volunteers and making use of a Bear Aware tool kit and training; but he feels the best route here would be a coordinator.
“Bear Aware is all about partnerships and it’s not that onerous a cost if everyone chips in,” he notes.
In some areas, the regional district sponsors the whole program, at a cost of $15,000 or so, but there are partial subsidies available for communities who qualify.
In 2005 and 2006, there was a program operated out of this regional district’s EECO in Mission Creek Regional Park, but it received no local funding, except the office. Funding for staff came from the BCCF and it dried up.
Regional district chairman Robert Hobson said he wasn’t aware of any requests to start up a program here again.
However, Myroniuk feels so strongly about the need for one here that he’s offered to chair a committee of volunteers, local civic leaders and staff and anyone else interested, to work towards getting one going here again.
If you’re willing to volunteer a little time and effort to work on the problem, e-mail him at Terry.Myroniuk@gov.bc.ca.