With fall fast approaching, black bears are beginning to fatten up in preparation for hibernation. “Bears can double their weight in a matter of weeks,” says BC SPCA animal welfare educator Meghann Cant. “They need to rapidly build up their fat reserves in order to survive the winter.”
For bears looking to bulk up, human foods – like those found in compost piles and garbage bins – are an attractive option. “Human foods are rich in calories and, compared to natural foods such as berries or nuts, require less time and energy to obtain,” explains Cant. “As a bear, why spend hours foraging for acorns when you can simply knock over a garbage can and get all the calories you need from a few leftovers?”
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,” says Cant. “Although the risk of injury from a black bear is minimal, the fact is the risk exists.”
In an effort to eliminate this risk, the provincial government may choose to translocate “problem” bears. Translocation involves capturing and moving bears to a new location, away from the site of conflict. While it sounds positive, is it the best management choice? “Not necessarily,” says Cant.
To begin with, translocated bears may just return to where they came from. “Bears are highly motivated to return to their home ranges,” says Cant. “They represent areas that bears are familiar with and have worked hard to establish.” Even when bears are taken hundreds of kilometres away, they may still be able to navigate their way home successfully.
Furthermore, since eating human foods is habit-forming, bears may simply continue to cause problems in the new location. Also, if human foods remain accessible in the original location, then other bears may move in and begin exhibiting the same behaviour.
Finally, 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,” says Cant.
Likewise, staying in the new location is not without challenges. Black bears are very familiar with their home ranges. They know what the best travel corridors are, where to go for seasonally available foods and how to locate the best shelters. “Being forced to quickly familiarize themselves with a new environment is likely very stressful,” says Cant. “Not only that, but 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, says Cant, the key is to change our own behaviour and prevent bears from gaining access to human foods in the first place. “Then, and only then, can we learn to coexist with black bears to help make B.C. a safer place for the both of us.”
British Columbia is "bear country" and the BC SPCA is reminding the public to keep food attractants secure to avoid drawing bears into conflict situations.
Photo credit: Michael Beckett
The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a not-for-profit organization reliant on public donations. Our mission is to protect and enhance the quality of life for domestic, farm and wild animals in B.C.