Fort Smith resident fears people in town are feeding bears

Fort Smith resident Jamie Chabun believes some people in town are feeding the bears in the area, and has grave worries about the risks of this behaviour.

“I’m concerned for everybody in Fort Smith,” he said. “The idea of them encountering a fed bear just rots my gut.”

Fort Smith, a community of just over 2,500 people that sits just above the Alberta border, is in black bear country. Under ideal circumstances, the bears that roam the area have a healthy fear of humans, but Chabun, who has lived in town since 1992, said the animals he’s seen lately are “needlessly fearless.”

Most of the bears he’s spotted lately have been wandering along the highway into town. Several, he claims, appear to be waiting to be fed, which implies they’ve been fed before.

Having also noticed plenty of discarded food wrappers around, he put two and two together.

“I’ve seen bears on the side of the road begging for food, basically,” he said. “I haven’t seen humans feeding them, but sometimes you’ll see snack wrappers on the highway, then you’ll see these bears waiting on the side of the highway, unafraid of people or vehicles.”

When Bears aren’t afraid of people, the risk of dangerous encounters between the two species drastically increases.

“Don’t feed the wildlife,” said Tania Oosting, a spokesperson for the GNWT’s Department of Environment and Climate Change. “Bears, foxes, and other wildlife are not pets. They can naturally find their own food. Not feeding wildlife is an important step in preventing encounters with people.

“An animal that’s accustomed to people loses their natural fear and will venture closer to people and homes, increasing the odds of aggressive encounters with people.”

Chabun believes run-ins between humans and bears are all the morely likely after the forest fires that devastated the NWT last summer, which affected the availability of natural bear foods, leaving the animals with fewer ways to appease the appetites they developed over their winter hibernations.

“We’ve had a lot of our forests just burn away, and not everything may be producing at the moment, until the morels come up and all of the fireweed and all the berries come up.” he said. “This year it seems extra risky to be feeding bears because they’re probably fairly hungry this year, having all of the greenery around us burned.”

Chabun has friends who live along the stretch of highway where he’s been seeing bears, and worries the most about them, but is adamant the risk applies to everybody in town.

To mitigate the risk, he has been sharing bear-related safety information on Facebook.

Information, he contends, could be the solution to the problem. While he worries that his fellow residents are being put at risk by people feeding bears, he does not feel any animosity toward the people doing the feeding, and suspects they are merely doing so out of ignorance.

“It’s not like people are bad people for not knowing that it’s wrong to feed bears, but there is a bit of ignorance to it,” he said. “They can’t see the cause and effect.”

Chabun would like to see the territorial government make greater efforts to educate people about the dangers of feeding bears.

“I think it would be great for the GNWT to put a bit more communication out there for people to understand the risks,” he said, pointing to the “a fed bear is a dead bear” slogan used by the US National Park Service as an example of the effective messaging on the subject.

Feeding wildlife is illegal in the NWT, and can result in fines of up to $50,000 and/or one year in prison. Chabun supports those kinds of punishments.

“People might think it’s a little heavy-handed to start doling out fines for people feeding wildlife, but after the fact, if somebody does get mauled or somebody gets hurt because of a fed bear, will it be too little [punishment]?” he said. “It depends on what side of the tragedy you’re you are on.”

As the US National Parks Services’ “a fed bear is a dead bear” slogan suggests, bears that show too little fear for humans are often destroyed to ensure no incidents occur. This is true in the NWT too.

“Once an animal is accustomed to people, we might end up with a situation where there’s no choice but to move or dispatch them for the protection of the public,” Oosting said. “Let’s work together to avoid this from happening. Let’s keep our wildlife wild.”

Eating human food is also unhealthy for wildlife, she said.

“It can cause injury, disease or even death.”

Tom Taylor, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, NWT News/North