COLUMN: Conservation officers caught in middle as bear deaths rise

Who is responsible for growing numbers of black bear deaths in urban areas?

By Kara Laurie-Serruys and Becca Merenyi

This past summer, residents of a Lower Mainland neighborhood had a rather interesting awakening. Three of their neighbours were arrested after interfering with conservation officers (CO) and members of the RCMP from destroying a family of black bears — a mum and two cubs. This bear family were considered “problem bears” in the area. Coquitlam, the area where the incident occurred, is known to have one of the highest populations of black bears because it borders remote wilderness areas.

Within the last two years, the number of calls to COs regarding bears in and around neighbourhoods in the Lower Mainland has doubled. Due to human negligence, garbage is often the main attractant for these magnificent creatures. Bears will consume whatever food is easiest to get, and the easiest snack around often comes from a human source.

Bears that consistently rely on human sources of food can become habituated (too comfortable around humans) and dangerous. These bears are called problem bears because they no longer have a healthy fear of humans. Without the natural avoidance one would find in non-habituated bears, these bears pose an ever-increasing threat to human safety and as such are often destroyed.

In the summer of 2019, approximately 108 black bears were destroyed by COs in the Lower Mainland, compared to 54 in the previous year. Eight orphaned cubs were placed into the care of a wildlife rehabilitation centre after their mothers were identified as problem bears and had to be destroyed. The increase in black bear deaths has upset many members of the public as they are used to living alongside the bears and consider them a special part of the area in which they live.

Members of the public have inquired about relocation as a possible alternative to help save problem bears. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with that option. First, you’d have to relocate bears a very long distance away, otherwise they tend to find their way back to where they came from. Second, black bears are very common in B.C. — there are no “open” unoccupied bear habitats to which problem bears can be relocated. A relocated bear is normally placed in the habitat of resident bears and this simply doesn’t work.

Unfortunately, COs are now often seen as villains for destroying bears. Some residents are also spreading the idea that you should not call a CO if you spot a bear in your neighbourhood. Conservation officers may now feel caught in the middle, trying to do their job but receiving criticism from the public for it. This attitude may have contributed to what happened in 2015; that summer a CO was suspended without pay for not destroying the cubs of a problem bear that was destroyed.

The main goal of both the COs and the concerned citizens is to reduce the number of problem bears that occur in neighbourhoods. If bears are in your neighbourhood, you can encourage them to pass through to wilder areas by reducing the number of attractants, such as garbage, fruit on or around trees, and compost. This may not reduce the number of bears in your area, but it will decrease the likelihood of the bears becoming habituated, enabling COs to use alternative tactics to encourage the bears to move along.

Kara Laurie-Serruys and Becca Merenyi are second year recreational fish and wildlife students at Selkirk College in Castlegar

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