Bear encounters on the rise in B.C. due to wildfires and extreme heat, experts say

A black bear is seen approaching a pile of garbage in the Okanagan. (B.C. Conservation Officer Service - image credit)
A black bear is seen approaching a pile of garbage in the Okanagan. (B.C. Conservation Officer Service - image credit)

Bear encounters are increasing across B.C. as the animals are displaced by wildfires and suffer food shortages due to this summer's extreme heat, experts say.

That's increasingly drawing them into residential neighbourhoods, where they're attracted to unattended garbage, birdseed and fruit, they add.

The third most destructive wildfire season on record has destroyed bears' habitats, pushing them to search for food in new territories.

"As a result of those large wildfires, we've certainly seen some bear habitat being burned up, and an increase in bear sightings within the community," Ken Owens, a conservation officer in Kelowna, B.C., told CBC News. "... These movements can lead to conflict as the bears search out new food sources.

"At times [in] that search for garbage, if bears can access it, they can become single-minded and determined in their attempts."

He said there have been 129 bear sightings in his region this month.

'They're hustling hard to get food'

Meanwhile, the record-setting heat and lack of rain across B.C. since late June has caused berries and green plants — which bears depend on to survive hibernation — to shrivel up early.

"It has been dry since June, when we had that heat dome," said Adam Ford, the Canada Research Chair in Wildlife Restoration Ecology and an associate biology professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan.

"Some of the plants are less productive than normal and, anecdotally, there was a decline in berry production.

"If that happens, bears have to find an alternate source of energy before they head into winter. So that's why they may be venturing further afield and encountering people more than normal."

At the same time, Ford and other experts say it's not unusual to see more bears in early fall as they try to eat enough calories to store over winter when they hibernate. Their survival through those winter months depends on it.

"They're hustling hard to get food, trying to pack on as much as they can before hibernation kicks in," Ford explained.

... Anecdotally, there was a decline in berry production. If that happens, bears have to find an alternate source of energy before they head into winter.

- Adam Ford, University of British Columbia

The Conservation Officer Service said a principal reason bears are being sighted, in the majority of cases, is because people have left garbage outside. In other cases it's because of fallen fruit and birdseed in feeders, which conservation officers say should be taken down over the summer and not put back up until November.

Feeding a bear is an offence, as is leaving out garbage for bears to get into, the service says.

Owens said he and other officers are frustrated that this message "has not gotten through to everyone."

'Lack of enforcement'

But for wildlife management researcher Bryce Casavant, "bigger questions" need to be asked.

Casavant — who was fired as a conversation officer for refusing to kill two bear cubs in 2015 — said although food attractants are a major problem, other significant factors in conflict with bears relate to suburban development near wild areas, as well as the need for more enforcement of existing laws around bear attractants and stronger messaging to the public from the government.

Submitted by Rachel Rowbottom
Submitted by Rachel Rowbottom

"I kind of get tired of the mantra of 'it's the public's fault' when there's been a lack of enforcement on the ground," said Casavant, who researched wildlife-human conflict and provincial policy at Royal Roads University and is now an adjunct professor at Pacific Coast University and a conservation policy analyst with Pacific Wild.

"First, you have things like habitat loss and urban sprawl. Then you have displaced wildlife that end up in an urban interface followed by opportunistic feeding … It shouldn't be a surprise to see a bear in an urban interface. It should be expected."

For one bear expert and board member of the North Shore Black Bear Society and the Grizzly Foundation, although bears are normally seen more in early fall, this year's weather has added unusual pressure.

Ellie Lamb, an experienced bear-viewing guide in Bella Coola, B.C., said just because bears are in communities does not mean they are necessarily a danger to the public — as long as people take appropriate precautions and show "healthy respect" for the animals.

"When they're in need, they're looking for safety," said Lamb. "So can we be tolerant during their time of need … and know that they're in crisis just as we are?"