Wildlife biologist Helen Davis has been fond of bears for as long as she can remember. She’s radio-collared black bears and tracked them on foot, squeezed into empty dens riddled with fleas and laughed at remote camera footage of bears sliding down plastic tubes in the forest, like children in a playground.
These days she hammers plywood roofs onto hollow stumps and builds plastic dens for black bears on Vancouver Island, where extensive clear-cutting of old-growth forests and the absence of rules to protect dens has left females with a severe housing shortage when it comes time to birth and nurture their cubs.
Eagle and osprey nests are protected in B.C. It’s illegal to cut down forests where songbirds are nesting before their young fledge. It’s also against the law to trash a beaver lodge or muskrat house.
But there are no such protections for black bears — denning trees can be logged even when cubs inside are tiny. It’s up to individual forestry companies and landowners to decide whether or not to leave a bear den standing.
In April, Davis filed a complaint with B.C.’s Forest Practices Board, hoping the board would launch a special investigation that would lead to the protection of bear denning trees — mainly large-diameter yellow and red cedar trees in vanishing old-growth forests — and save some old-growth stands for future dens.
A ‘dwindling supply’ of black bear dens
“Bears are still denning in stumps of trees that were cut down 80 plus years ago,” Davis told The Narwhal. “Those stumps are still sound, but they are rotting and they won’t be there forever. We aren’t allowing new forests to become large enough to become new dens. So there’s this dwindling supply.”
Female bears can fold into a cavity whose entrance is no bigger than 30 centimetres across and their dens are “like nests,” Davis said. The females carry moss, ferns, fireweed, tree boughs and shrubbery into their den, which can be used by different bears for decades, sometimes skipping years to avoid pestering fleas that wait inside.
One female bear caught on remote camera piles up fireweed outside her ground level den, squeezes in and “keeps reaching out the entrance and pulling the bedding inside” to make what Davis describes as a “very, very delicate” home for her cubs.
“Some of the nests are just incredible. It looks like a bird’s nest. They curl up into a little tiny ball. They’re so well insulated with their fat and hair.”
Stumps now cut too low to the ground for bear dens
Sitka spruce and balsam fir stumps are also sometimes used for denning, along with the “root bowls” — the place where the roots and stem of the tree meet — of trees blown over in storms.
“When they cut old-growth now they generally cut trees very close to the ground,” Davis said.
“And in the old days a lot of the stumps were over my head — six foot to the ground from the top of the stump. They don’t waste that kind of wood any more so any old-growth that is being cut right now doesn’t generally leave stumps that can be used as dens.”
B.C. is home to one-quarter of Canada’s black bears and has more sub-species of black bear than anywhere else in the country. Black bears, still found throughout Canada, have been extirpated from much of their historic range in the U.S. and Mexico, largely due to persecution and habitat destruction.
Ten-thousand-year-old black bear skeletons have been found in caves on Vancouver Island, suggesting the black bears that arrived soon after glaciation were larger than modern-day black bears. According to the B.C. environment ministry, “scientists believe that bears on Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlottes have retained more of their ice-age characteristics than mainland bears because of a long period of isolation from continental populations.”
The sub-species of black bear on Vancouver Island is known as Ursus americanus vancouveri. Restricted to Vancouver Island and larger adjacent islands, this sub-species is similar to the subspecies found in Haida Gwaii — primarily black in colour and with a large skull — but the Vancouver Island black bears have smaller teeth.
B.C. currently protects black bear dens only on Haida Gwaii and in the Great Bear Rainforest.
“Dens are no less important to bears in the rest of coastal B.C.,” Davis wrote to the board in her notice of complaint, “but they continued to be removed and destroyed on Vancouver Island and other parts of the mainland coast where the supply is even lower due to extensive old-growth harvesting.”
About 80 per cent of Vancouver Island’s productive old-growth forests have been logged. Only eight per cent of the island’s original old-growth trees have some sort of protection, either in parks or because they are within a designated old-growth management area.
B.C. Forest Practices Board investigating complaint
The board rejected Davis’ request for a special investigation but agreed to look into her complaint.
Forest Practices Board spokesperson Darlene Oman told The Narwhal the board’s investigation is still on-going and it has not yet issued a report.
“I wanted to have the issue looked at as a whole and have the provincial government held accountable for more regulation to protect dens, as well as increased landscape level planning to allow some trees to grow large enough to become new dens,” Davis says of her complaint, which points out that black bears need secure and warm den sites for up to six months in order to survive winter on the coast.
She also started a petition asking the B.C. government to protect black bear dens and ensure that forest planners protect trees large enough for new dens.
Since 2014, Davis has had support from two forestry companies that operate in the Jordan River watershed — TimberWest and Queesto, a partnership between the Pacheedaht First Nation and Canadian Overseas Log and Lumber Ltd. — to put roofs on open old-growth stumps and build experimental black bear dens on logged land.
With funding from BC Hydro’s fish and wildlife compensation program, the wildlife biologist created artificial dens made of plastic culverts. Then, with help from an industrial designer, she built den pods, a molded form secured to the ground that mimics a natural den. “It’s kind of like an upside down plastic boat, with an entrance and a chamber.”
Molly Hudson, manager of stewardship and outreach for Mosaic Forest Management, which manages land for TimberWest, said the company was intrigued by the idea of taking a second-growth landscape and adding den structures to see if bears would use them.
The company gave Davis permission to access its private land holdings in the upper Jordan River watershed, donating about $25,000 during the past five years to help with the project.
“There are no regulatory requirements that we have to manage bear dens in any certain way,” Hudson said in an interview. “Neither the Crown land requirements nor the private land requirements specify that.”
“But we have had a long-standing internal commitment to identify those dens and retain them wherever we possibly can.”
Hudson said the company – the largest private forest landowner on Vancouver Island – has maintained a bear den inventory for decades, taking measurements and photos of every bear den it finds. Hundreds of bear dens have been catalogued, she said.
“Certainly we realize the importance of these features long-term on our land-base…. How that would look in regulation is an interesting question. We believe as a company that these structures are worthy of protecting.”
‘I had no idea how goofy they are’: bears play on artificial dens
The dens are designed for female bears, who are most vulnerable when they are with their cubs, sometimes preyed upon by wolves, cougars and other bears. “They’re kind of sitting ducks in the dens. So we wanted it to be a small defensible entrance,” Davis said.
There are now about 20 den pods in the Jordan River watershed, including open hollow stumps with plywood roofs. Davis has also installed four den pods and covered a hollow stump in the Campbell River area on B.C. Timber Sales land where much of the forest was destroyed by wildfire in the 1960s.
“It was completely experimental,” Davis said. “You put the thing out in the middle of the forest. How do you know a bear’s going to find it, let alone consider using it as a den?”
Subsequent monitoring showed that bears look for dens year-round and will find “anything you put in the forest,” Davis said. She’s amassed hundreds of 15-second video clips from different den pods, including footage of bears who play on top of the pods and slide down the plastic tubing.
“It’s absolutely hysterical. They seem to find them quite entertaining … I thought I really knew black bears. And I had no idea how goofy they were.”
To make sure the bears spotted the artificial dens, Davis placed “horrifically stinky” weasel lure — a mix of skunk essence, anise oil and glycerine — on branches and roots near the dens to create an interesting smell.
She also tried putting bear hair — taken from a dead bear she found in the forest — inside the dens. Only two weeks later, she returned to the pod to find that a bear had crawled in. From then on, bear hair went into all the artificial structures.
Black bear populations reported as declining, hunting licences up 45 per cent
Davis said no one knows how swiftly black bear populations are declining because the B.C. government doesn’t do any population census work on black bears.
“Loggers and First Nations tell me that they think there’s fewer black bears but there’s no data to base that on, at least on Vancouver Island.”
‘Namgis First Nation chief Don Svanvik told The Narwhal he and other nation members have seen a marked decline of black bears in their traditional territory on northern Vancouver Island.
Svanvik, who spent 15 years working on the nation’s culturally modified trees survey crew before he was elected as chief in 2017, said black bears were a “common sight” up to about seven years ago, easily spotted because there aren’t very many things in the forest that dark in colour.
“It started to get rarer to see a bear,” he said. “It became really noticeable. It just came to mind: ‘you know, we haven’t seen a bear.’ ”
Hudson said it would help Mosaic Forest Management, which also manages land for Island Timberlands, to know the status of black bear populations.
“Some work on the population status and trends would be really helpful for us as habitat managers.”
A recent 10-year period saw a 45 per cent increase in the sale of black bear hunting licences province-wide. In 2007, about 20,000 licences were issued, rising to 29,000 black bear hunting licences in 2017, according to Davis.
“It’s not on people’s radar,” Davis said. “People don’t care about black bears. They think they’re all over the place and they’re fine.”
This article was produced in partnership with the Small Change Fund.