Recent bear conflict in your neighbourhood? Help reduce conflicts with education - spread the word about attractant management with the BC SPCA Bear Door Hanger (demo - PDF) that can be distributed in your neighbourhood on door handles. Contact the BC SPCA to have door hangers mailed to you.
Learning to live with bears
British Columbia is fortunate to be home to both black bear and grizzly bear populations. For the human population living in Beautiful B.C., therefore, learning to coexist with wildlife is key. Urban centres throughout B.C. are expanding into regions once occupied by bears, displacing them from their natural habitats. Even in more remote wilderness, bears may not be safe as our curiosity for nature and adventurous spirit for the outdoors bring us into closer contact. As a result, human-bear encounters are becoming a normal occurrence and it is important to understand how we can reduce potential conflicts with our wild neighbours.
Bears emerge from hibernation in spring, the dates of which can vary depending on local weather conditions and terrain. For example, on the coast, some bears have been spotted awake and roaming during very mild winters. But whenever bears do emerge, they look for food and are often drawn into towns and cities by human food sources such as compost piles, bird feeders, garbage, fruit trees and pet food. Essentially, bears spend the winter fasting and by the time they wake, they have lost up to a third of their body weight. For hungry bears just out of the den, human foods – like those found in composts and garbage bins – are an attractive option. They are rich in calories and, compared to natural foods, require less time and energy to obtain.
In fall, the cycle can continue, as bears begin to fatten up in preparation for hibernation and again human foods are a fast-food alternative. Bears can double their weight in a matter of weeks, rapidly building up the fat reserves they need to survive the winter.
The problem? Eating human foods brings bears and people closer together. There is potential for conflict whenever bears are drawn into urban areas by human foods and, over time, bears may lose their natural fear of humans and actually come to associate people with food – with serious consequences. Although the risk of injury from a black bear is minimal, the fact is the risk exists. Sadly, hundreds of "problem" bears are destroyed by Conservation Officers every year as a result. Fortunately, conflicts can be reduced by following these tips:
Keep garbage and recycling secured in the house, garage or shed until pick-up day;
- Clean garbage and recycling bins regularly;
- Pick up ripe and fallen fruit from trees and bushes daily;
- Harvest garden vegetables as they ripen;
- Clean barbecue grills after each use, and store barbecues in a secure area;
- Bring pet food dishes inside;
- Cover kitchen scraps in the compost with dry leaves or dried grass clippings;
- Avoid overloading the compost with fruit waste by freezing it and adding it gradually;
- Turn compost regularly, and keep compost bins covered;
- Work with neighbours to create a bear-aware neighbourhood.
Is relocation an option?
Given the danger faced by people and by black bears, human-bear conflicts deserve our very close attention. In some cases, the management response is translocation: to move the "problem" bear to a new location, away from the site of conflict. But is translocation the answer to human-bear conflicts, or just another case of "out of sight, out of mind"? Life for a translocated bear is difficult, not to mention dangerous. Thus, while it sounds positive, relocation is not often a humane solution - or an effective one.
Translocated bears may just return to where they came from. Bears are highly motivated to return to their home ranges as these are the areas that bears are most familiar with and have worked hard to establish. They know what the best travel corridors are, where to go for seasonally available foods and how to locate the best shelters. Even when bears are taken hundreds of kilometres away, they may still be able to navigate their way home successfully. Also, since eating human foods is habit-forming, bears may simply continue to cause problems in the new location. Plus, if human foods remain accessible in the original location, then other bears may move in and begin exhibiting the same behaviour.
Translocation is hard on the bears themselves. As they attempt to return home, bears may come into conflict with humans in different ways such as being hit by vehicles or shot by hunters. Research suggests that they may actually remain vulnerable to these mortality sources for weeks, if not months, after release. Being forced to quickly familiarize themselves with a new environment is likely very stressful and translocated bears who find themselves in another bear’s territory are at risk of serious injury, even death.
Translocation is, at best, a short-term solution to human-bear conflicts, and is far from being a positive choice from an animal welfare standpoint. Instead, the key is to change our own behaviour and prevent bears from gaining access to human foods in the first place. People need to learn to coexist with bears to help make B.C. a safe place for ourselves and our wild neighbours.
Learn more on how to put bear advocacy into action from these great community organizations:
Bear Smart Whistler
North Shore Black Bear Society (North Vancouver)
Hope Mountain Black Bear Committee
Wild Wise Sooke
Northern Bear Awareness Society (Prince George)
Check out government resources to report and track bear conflicts and establish Bear Smart communities:
WildSafeBC (a Wildlife Alert Reporting Program that maps wildlife conflicts from provincial hotline calls updated weekly)
Bear Smart Community Program
Photo credits: Tania Simpson, Chris Aaron Gale, Tana Woodward, Douglas Sage, Heather Bazinet, Philip Warburton