Thirty-one bears have had to be killed in the Elk Valley this year by conservation officers because of habituation or injury.
According to data from the service, 17 black bears have been killed in and around Sparwood, while 12 black bears and two grizzly bears have been killed in and around Fernie.
“The majority of the bear mortalities are due to insecure attractant management,” said Elk Valley area conservation officer (CO) Ryan Gordon.
“Once a bear gets into human sources of food it becomes habituated very quickly. Several bears were active within communities during daylight hours and showed little to no fear of people. We also euthanized several bears as a result of them creating property damage, such as breaking into sheds to access garbage or livestock,” he said.
Those numbers only reflect the number of bears that had to be killed by conservation officers, and don’t include bears killed by traffic, trains, or hunting activity.
Attractants that draw bears towards towns and humans include residential and commercial garbage and improper management of fruit bearing trees.
Gordon said that much of the human-bear conflict in Sparwood could have been avoided with better management of residential garbage.
“We noted a large number of residents not using their residential garbage bins properly. They failed to keep the lids latched at all times.”
It has been a busy year for bears and all the related agencies and authorities that respond to them in the Elk Valley.
In October, COs began searching for someone in Sparwood that attempted to take a bear issue into their own hands, shooting a black bear sow with a small-calibre rifle.
They failed to kill the bear, leaving her severely injured. COs had to euthanize her, along with her two yearling cubs that were habituated to eating garbage in the town. Following that, CO Patricia Burley noted that 2021 had been the “worst year” in her career for managing human-bear conflicts.
Meanwhile in Fernie, during a council meeting, director of finance Brynn Burditt said in November the city had to allocate additional funds to replacing residential bins in the city, as more of them were being damaged by bears searching for food than had been budgeted for.
For the COs, Gordon said that further conflict could be avoided across the valley if all food-related businesses switched to bear-resistant commercial bins.
“We still have businesses that use commercial bins with plastic lids, bears can easily access food waste from these bins. The [conservation service] is working on getting these bins replaced, however businesses can proactively do this before there is conflict.”
Bears were also destroyed in the valley due to injuries, with three of the bears in Sparwood euthanized after sustaining injuries by motor vehicles on Hwy. 3.
Not seen in the numbers reported by the service were the four grizzly bears run down by a CP Rail train in October.
The local officers received over 400 calls to do with bears in 2021 through the RAPP hotline — 305 of which were from Fernie while 86 were from Sparwood, and 12 were from Elkford. The data doesn’t include direct calls to the service, bylaw reports in municipalities and calls for conservation officer assistance from the RCMP. Bear reports continue to roll in as of early December.
COs are only called in to destroy bears when they have become habituated to humans, and pose a safety risk to the community.
Clayton Lamb, a local wildlife scientist who tracks the movements and behaviour of grizzly bears, said that overall it was a bad year caused in part by a long, dry summer that yielded a poor berry crop for bears, forcing them into built-up areas in search of food ahead of winter.
“We know of at least 10 grizzly bears that have died in the Elk Valley due to all sorts of causes including collisions on the highway and the railway, conflicts with people, and poaching,” he said.
Lamb said that it was clearly the status quo of human-wildlife management wasn’t working for bears — or humans.
“This year’s high bear conflict and mortality tells me that we have a continuing coexistence challenge in the valley that needs solutions,” said Lamb, who explained that every few years there was a spike in conflicts due to poor food conditions. The last ‘spike’ year was 2015.
“We need to work together to create durable solutions that allow people to feel safer in a valley that has a high density of bears while keeping bears safer - the solutions are out there and include electric fencing of livestock such as chickens and bees, and removing unused apple trees.”
Lamb said that as of 2021, B.C. doesn’t have any sort of comprehensive coexistence program in place beyond the patchwork of local solutions that exist today, such as the pilot program to remove and replace fruit-bearing trees in the valley in 2021 that saw seven properties cleared.
Lamb said that the Elk Valley’s characteristics as a high-quality habitat area with high human traffic combined to make it a vacuum for the bear population in the surrounding region which stretches into Alberta and the United States, leading to a huge turnover of bears as they’re killed.
“Something that’s harder to see without the science we do is the turnover of those bears … it’s not as if there’s a static population that just lives here — they’re dying at a high rate, and they get replaced at a high rate.”
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