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People to blame for conflicts with bears

  - Judie Steeves/Capital News
— image credit: Judie Steeves/Capital News

As the first dart hit, the big bear whimpered and scrambled a couple of feet further up the big pine tree adjacent to the house, but a little later his bowels loosened and a stream of plastic bags, tin can lids, paper and excrement fell to litter the garden below.

If there was any question before about the possibility of successfully re-locating the big black bear, that settled it, since numerous attempts at relocation of garbage-habituated bears have proven futile in the past.

Bears who have become used to eating human foods such as garbage always return to human settlements and to their old habits of scavenging around houses and people, say conservation officers. The caloric value of those foods is much higher than that of their natural forest feed.

However, Kelowna conservation officers Ken Owens and Terry Myroniuk had responded to a safety concern about a large bear up a tree within a few feet of a house in a residential neighbourhood, and they’d still hoped they could tranquilize him and move him instead of killing him.

“We feel horrible when we have to kill an animal. He’s scared of people and then he comes into town and finds easy food; starts to get into garbage; begins to damage property or becomes dangerous, and next thing we’re called in and have to put him down,” explains Owens.

“This puts a huge stress on us,” he says, adding, “And, so many of those deaths could be prevented.”

“It’s not a bear problem; it’s a people problem. If people didn’t attract bears into neighbourhoods by leaving food out for them, they would soon wander on,” he explains.

Bears have an amazing sense of smell, he says, and garbage is the number one attractant, so people need to keep their garbage inside or in bear-proofed containers until the morning of garbage collection day.

Insp. Barb Leslie, operations manager for this region of the CO service, warns that anyone who attracts dangerous wildlife by such actions as leaving garbage out is liable for an immediate fine of $345, or court.

Those who attract bears are not only making their own neighbourhoods unsafe, but are also putting a death sentence on the bears they attract, she said.

Municipalities and regional districts need to partner up and enact bylaws that require residents to remove attractants from their properties or keep them out of reach. It’s about accountability, she says.

It was with that in mind that conservation officers were invited this fall by West Kelowna Coun. Rick de Jong to do a presentation for council about preventing bear-human conflicts.

De Jong has seen black bears sauntering down the middle of his street in upper Glenrosa mid-day, even though they’re normally nocturnal, and he realizes people in the community need to take more responsibility for their actions.

It’s our habits, like putting the garbage out the night before pick-up day that attract bears into neighbourhoods, he admitted.

“This is a beautiful rural area, but we have to take responsibility and have respect for wildlife. A number of our neighbourhoods are in interface areas, so it’s an issue we should look at as a community. We should support the CO service,” he commented.

Owens told councillors that complaints about bears go to a central call centre in Victoria, but there are far too many for conservation officers to deal with all of them—and anyway, they can’t have any impact in the long-term unless people stop leaving out attractants such as garbage, bird feeders, dirty barbecues, pet food, fruit and nuts.

But, there is a program available that helps educate the community about what can be done to deal effectively with the problem.

It’s a provincial program coordinated by the B.C. Conservation Foundation, called Bear Aware. It also deals with other problem wildlife such as coyotes, deer and cougars under the WildSafe B.C. program.

It’s a program that de Jong says he would personally support for West Kelowna.

These programs already exist in the South Okanagan and in the North Okanagan, leaving a gap in the middle of the valley.

The Okanagan Similkameen Regional District program is run by Zoe Kirk, who says she began in 2010 and the number of bears that have had to be killed has dropped right off since the program began in that region, along with the number of complaints about human-wildlife conflicts.

She offers the program in six municipalities and eight electoral areas in that regional district, and says they began with a Bear Hazard Assessment that involved the environment ministry as well as the South Okanagan Similkameen Conservation Program. They then moved on to a Bear Conflict Management Plan.

Up to local government

But, first of all, local government needs to enact a bylaw requiring that residents deal responsibly with their attractants. Templates for such bylaws are readily available from communities such as Whistler, says Owens.

Kirk says the best thing about the program is not only are people no longer unsafe because of bear activity near their homes and schools, but “We don’t need to destroy wildlife any more,” she said.

But, she says the whole valley needs to have the program in operation because bears travel around. They tagged a bear in Summerland this summer and it ended up later being shot in Peachland by COs after getting into garbage there.

She notes that in the first year of the program the bear cubs—who are conditioned by their garbage-bear moms—will be going up and down the road saying, “ who shut the restaurant?

“Everyone has to pull together and remove the attractants to get bears to go away,” she said.

Frank Ritcey is provincial coordinator for the program and echoes that. “It’s up to local residents,” he says.

The COs will only deal with a problem if public safety is threatened or property damage has been done.

“You’ll continue to have conflicts as long as you don’t deal with the cause. COs have neither the manpower nor the time to do public education. You need to get ahead of it,” he said.

Some communities, like Grand Forks, feel the program is important enough that they have opted to pay the entire cost of $15,000 a year to get it going in their community, he said, but most years there is some provincial funding available to help communities out with a grant to get started, and sometimes it only costs the community $2,500.

When the Bear Aware program got going in B.C. there were 1,000 bears destroyed a year, and this year there were only 260, he said, so the program is working.

Other organizations also help to chip in money towards the cost of the program so that everyone pitches in and accepts a shared responsibility. Training and materials are supplied by the BCCF.

Applications have to be made by communities in January to BCCF for funding. Support of the local CO Service is required.

“We would really like to see the gap filled in the Central Okanagan,” he commented.

In 2012-2013, of the 1,405 bear calls received by the Victoria call centre from the North Okanagan Zone, 607 were from the Kelowna area, and 269 of those were from the West Kelowna area.

That was double the number from the previous year. Most of them were bears getting into garbage.

The current garbage containers can be retro-fitted with bear-proof locks, noted Owens, or an alternative cart purchased that is bear proof.

There are also lots of plans available for simple bear-proof enclosures for garbage, including for commercial containers.

With a Bear Aware coordinator in this area, information and educational materials about such changes the people can make to deter bears and make themselves and their neighbourhoods safer, would be made available he says.

Education is a big part of what such Bear Aware coordinators do, and it can have a huge impact, says Ritcey.

But, local government needs to step up to the plate.

 

jsteeves@kelownacapnews.com

 

 

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