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Across B.C. hundreds of black bears are killed each year by conservation officers. Since 2011, more than 5,632 have been euthanized, many killed after becoming accustomed to easy meals in towns: lunch by a backyard tree heavy with ripe fruit, dinner by an unlatched garbage bin.
“This is an ongoing problem,” said Aaron Hofman, the director of advocacy and policy for the Fur-Bearers, a non-profit focused on wildlife protection. “And there’s no sign that it’s getting better.”
Not every bear that wanders through a community is euthanized, but last year 581 black bears were killed by conservation officers. The year before, it was 555. And 632 the year before that.
Between 2015 and 2021, conservation officers killed 231 black bears in Prince George, 110 in Terrace, 82 in Kamloops, 73 in Powell River, 69 in Coquitlam, 59 in Squamish, 49 in Maple Ridge and hundreds more in other communities across the province, according to data the Fur-Bearers obtained through a freedom of information request.
In Nelson, a city of more than 10,600 people in the West Kootenays, conservation officers killed 64 black bears in that same seven year period. Twelve more have been killed so far this year.
Tensions over the number of bears killed in the city have come to head in the lead up to the municipal election. Residents have taken to social media and council chambers to raise their concerns and thousands of people have signed an online petition calling for the city to adopt “bear smart” policies.
“We’re drawing the bears in and then shooting them when they come down. It’s very unfair,” Jessica Grant, one of the concerned Nelson residents behind the online petition, told The Narwhal.
The city currently has garbage pick-up once every two weeks, does not have a green waste program and does not currently provide residents with bear-proof garbage bins.
And, as they do elsewhere, bears are taking advantage of what Annie Booth calls “human foolishness.”
Booth, a professor in the environmental and sustainability studies department at the University of Northern British Columbia, said bears that scavenge in urban areas have an “evolutionary advantage.” They tend to have more cubs and their cubs grow bigger faster. “So, there’s a real good reason bears come and knock over your garbage can and forage around,” she said.
They won’t stop coming on their own. People need to stop giving them a reason to stay, she said.
For conservation officers, a bear that tears apart a door or breaks a window trying to get at the garbage inside a garage is a red flag. “We see that they become more aggressive to enter dwellings, they become a threat to kids walking home from school,” Sgt. Ben Beetlestone of the B.C. conservation service said. “We’ve got to minimize the public safety risk when those conflicts start to rise to that level.”
“Bottom line, it boils down to what level of threat has this bear become to public safety?” he said.
While bear attacks in B.C. are extremely rare, three people were recently injured in what the conservation service has described as a “predatory” black bear attack just outside of Dawson Creek in northeastern B.C. At this time, it is unknown whether this bear was food-conditioned, according to the conservation service.
As bears continue to be killed in the name of public safety, some are asking what this means for the species. The exact number of black bears in B.C. is unknown, making it difficult to assess the impact on populations when bears are killed by conservation officers, according to Michael Proctor, an independent research scientist and bear expert.
In general, black bears are considered “secure” from a conservation perspective, he said. Compared with grizzlies, black bears adapt more easily to humans, they require less space and their populations are larger. Which is to say, a higher number of black bears can be killed before it becomes a threat to their existence as a species.
But this is just one of many stresses on black bear populations, which also face pressure from natural resource projects, new subdivisions, poaching and climate change.
And, while the loss of hundreds of black bears each year to protect the public may not pose an immediate conservation threat, Proctor said he sees it as “a larger cultural philosophical paradigm where people don’t take sharing the earth with other critters very seriously.”
It comes down to a “moral issue,” he said. And the conservation service is caught in the middle.
In Nelson, it was the recent killing of a sow and one of her cubs that triggered the uptick in public conversation about the way the city manages garbage and other bear attractants such as fruit and nut trees.
“It was just a horrific, terrible thing,” Grant said.
Anita Johnson, another long-time Nelson resident, said the sow and her two cubs had been “hanging around for weeks, in and out of everybody’s yards.”
“I personally never had a problem with them,” Johnson said, adding that numerous people she’s spoken to said the same thing.
“I was just kind of holding my breath, hoping that they were going to somehow get through the fall and not be shot.”
Then, one day she heard the bangs ring out and said she just knew. “I got in my car and drove a few blocks away … I witnessed them being loaded dead into the back of the [conservation officer’s] truck,” she said.
“I was absolutely distraught.”
According to Beetlestone, there had been numerous complaints about the bears. The day before they were killed, they had been trying to get into a home, pushing on the door as a woman was trying to keep it closed, he said. The day they were shot, the bears tried to break into an unoccupied travel trailer.
Conservation officers received about 478 calls since May about black bears in the Nelson area, Beetlestone said. About 59 per cent of those calls were related to food-conditioned bears, 29 per cent were bear sightings, the rest related to other issues such as injured or confined bears.
“It’s a very emotional thing when bears do get euthanized within our community, and it puts a lot of stress not just on the community but on the officers,” said Beetlestone, who is based in Castlegar and supervises a small team of conservation officers tasked with covering a vast area in the West Kootenays.
Hofman questions whether all the bears that end up euthanized are actually a threat. Some of them are cubs, which “in our mind don’t pose a risk to public safety,” he said.
The Fur-Bearers submitted a complaint to the conservation service over the killing of bear cubs this year and has asked the auditor general to audit the agency to assess what’s working and what’s not in the way bears and other wildlife are managed. Hofman said he’d also like to see third-party oversight of the service.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the B.C. government said “putting down any bear or cub is an outcome that conservation officers work hard to prevent.”
“Unfortunately, when people do not take preventative actions to properly secure attractants and leave garbage unsecured, it can often lead to bears being put down in order to keep people safe,” the statement said.
The spokesperson noted that the policies that guide conservation officers’ response to human-wildlife conflict include input from wildlife biologists and other experts.
“Officers approach every situation individually, taking into account the risk to public safety and the animal’s ability to survive in the wild,” the statement said.
Proctor said black bears that are conditioned to human food can present a “low level threat.”
“It’s not a high threat, but it’s a non-zero threat,” he said.
Conservation officers get thousands of calls about bears each year in B.C. When complaints about bears come in, officers give advice to the callers about how to minimize their concerns, Beetlestone said.
“But people shouldn’t be phoning us to tell us they have a bear in their garbage three nights in a row, like ‘Hey, listen this is common sense for you to address,’ ” he said.
“The bottom line is that the bear is likely already food-conditioned and the community — the community — not the conservation officer service, the community has set what could become of that bear.”
“I don’t have one officer, including myself, that wants to shoot bears within our communities, that’s not why we’re conservation officers,” Beetlestone said.
Black bears that have become used to human food aren’t relocated, he said.
“There’s very few jurisdictions, if any, in North America that are going to move a food-conditioned black bear,” he said.
“There’s no easy solution,” according to Proctor. Black bears “have amazing homing instincts,” he said, so even moving a bear far away doesn’t mean it won’t come back.
Intervening early to prevent a bear from becoming hooked on human food is the best bet, because eventually it becomes “very difficult to turn off that tap,” he said.
Nelson has seen more black bears in town than usual this year and the number that conservation officers have put down is “extremely high,” Beetlestone said.
A late spring meant the huckleberries at higher elevations never took, he said. The berries at lower elevations are long gone and other plants have shriveled in a drought that’s also seen tens of thousands of salmon die after becoming stranded by low water levels in a creek in Heiltsuk Territory, on the central coast.
In the Nelson area, where bears are finding food is in town, in easy to access garbage or the ripe fruit that’s falling from trees or just waiting to be picked.
Bears are highly motivated by the promise of food. They sleep for half the year, which means they must eat a year’s worth of food in the six months they’re active, Proctor said. In the West Kootenays, black bears have even less time to bulk up because the berries only come out in mid-July, he said.
Until then, bears will eat roots and leaves from plants, but it doesn’t do much to build up their fat stores, he said.
For female bears, those fat reserves determine whether they can reproduce. Though bears mate in the spring, a fertilized egg doesn’t implant in the uterine wall until November and only if the bear has enough body fat to support itself through a pregnancy overwinter.
“It’s just simple biology,” Proctor said.
For Johnson, the death of the sow and cub was “the last straw.”
She’s lived in the city on and off for 40 years, she said, and never seen as many bears in town as she has this year.
“The bears are just coming and they’re sticking around because there’s so much accessible garbage and it seems like the city, rather than taking responsibility, is just deferring to conservation, which isn’t a solution,” Johnson said.
“It’s just astounding that we don’t have bear-proof bins.”
Though communities across the province are dealing with similar challenges, it’s become an election issue in Nelson.
In late September, Johnson addressed the city council, calling for existing bylaws around wildlife attractants to be enforced and for the city to provide bear-proof garbage bins.
She said many Nelson residents don’t have a garage, shed or freezer space to store two weeks worth of garbage.
While the city of Nelson is working to get appliances called food cyclers, which convert food scraps to fertilizer, into homes throughout the community, Johnson worries that alone won’t solve the problem.
“A lot of this is on the city, and they’re not taking responsibility,” Grant said.
By Oct. 6, More than 22,500 people signed her petition calling for Nelson to adopt bear smart policies.
She said her next step is to work with WildSafeBC to develop a concrete plan to bring forward to city council.
“I’m thinking that the first step would be bear safe garbage cans for all residents in the community,” she said.
In a statement, Nelson city manager Kevin Cormack said the city “has a robust wildlife attractant bylaw to reduce attractants in the city, including penalties for non-compliance.”
The Narwhal asked how many people bylaw officers fined this year for non-compliance, but Cormack’s statement did not include a response to this question.
Nelson has replaced a number of garbage containers in local parks with bear-proof bins and has an inventory of bins that still need to be replaced, which will be brought forward to council as part of next year’s budget, Cormack said. In the meantime, garbage is picked up more frequently in parks, he added.
In the past, the city tried to increase the number of bear-proof bins by making them available to residents at a discounted rate. In a statement to The Narwhal, a spokesperson for the city said 100 64-gallon bear bins were made available to the public in 2017. Another 150 were available in 2019 as well as 50 smaller 32-gallon bins. Cormack said it took two years to sell out of the bins, noting the community uptake was “relatively slow.”
In 2021, the city started selling the remaining bins outside of Nelson because of “a lack of demand in Nelson,” the statement said.
At the same time, the local WildSafeBC coordinator has been focused on educating the community to reduce bear attractants, Cormack said.
“We have seen the impact of our community not being as bear smart as we need to be in managing attractants. We will all need to be better in how we handle these attractants,” Cormack said. That means improving how the community approaches enforcement, education, and handles waste, fruit trees, bird feeders and other attractants.
“The city will explore becoming a bear smart community,” he said.
Asked why the city hasn’t moved forward to become a bear smart city already, Mayor John Dooley said the city has been working with WildSafeBC for years to implement bear smart initiatives, such as a fruit picking program, community education and installation of bear proof bins in public areas.
In the face of limited uptake from residents of more expensive bear proof bins, Dooley said the city focused on education to build community buy-in for bear smart programs and ensure residents are taking responsibility to reduce attractants around their homes.
“It’s important that we’re leading for sure,” Dooley said. But “most bylaws that municipalities have, regardless of what area it’s in, whether it’s shoveling your sidewalk in the wintertime or putting away your garbage so it doesn’t attract bears, that needs public participation.”
The bear issue in Nelson has become an election issue, with at least three mayoral candidates committing to improve the way the city manages its garbage.
In an interview with The Narwhal in early October, Dooley, who is running for re-election, said he planned to put forward a resolution at the next council meeting to review the way the city manages its garbage. He said the city would work with the conservation service, WildSafe BC and the waste management department to see if there’s a better way to manage waste going forward.
But “it’s going to take everybody in town to be part of this solution,” he said.
Mike Zeabin, another mayoral candidate, said he was concerned about the number of bears being killed and said he’d like to see the city offer more frequent garbage pick up as well as bear-proof bins.
John Buffery, who is also running for mayor, said Nelson needs to ensure it is managing its waste in a rodent- and bear-proof way, in line with bear smart practices.
The Narwhal did not receive a response from the other two candidates running to be Nelson’s mayor by publication.
So far, there are 10 communities in B.C. that are certified as “bear smart,” among them, Kamloops, Squamish, Port Alberni and Castlegar. According to the B.C. government, reports of bear conflicts are down almost 20 per cent in these areas.
“If a bear doesn’t find food, there’s no reason for it to stick around,” Vanessa Isnardy, a program manager with WildSafeBC told The Narwhal.
WildSafeBC’s goal is to prevent conflict with wildlife and it supports communities to become “bear smart.”
Isnardy said local governments do not always have the funding or capacity needed to implement the bear smart program easily. It is also more costly for cities to offer bear-proof bins instead of regular bins to the many households that do not have enclosed garages where they can safely store their garbage bins.
“Local governments play an important leadership role in supporting their residents in reducing conflict,” she said. “But I also think that residents need to take some personal responsibility.”
First, city governments should develop education programs to help make residents aware of the steps they can take to reduce human bear conflicts, Isnardy said. And, where education alone doesn’t work, they need enforceable bylaws. Individuals meanwhile can work together on grassroots initiatives such as food sharing programs, teaming up to pick fruit and nuts from trees around town that may be attracting bears.
An ongoing challenge, according to Booth, is that “People do not like to change their habits.”
“It is inconvenient to lock your garbage away. It is inconvenient to bungee cord. It is inconvenient to do the things necessary to keep your garbage from being an attractant,” she said.
But at the end of the day, “this isn’t a great mystery that has to be deciphered,” she said. “If we want bears, we have to stop doing what we’re doing and behave differently.”
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