With 156 local activity reports phoned in to the BC Conservation Officer Service since April 1, the 2017 bear season in Sooke has been exceptionally busy and it’s guaranteed to get busier still as our town’s favourite omnivores satisfy their voracious appetites.
Poor garbage storage in a small but significant number of area homes is, as ever, the prime reason local bears abandon natural diets and develop what can sadly but inevitably become a tragic taste for trash, reports Sooke-based Conservation Officer Rick Dekelver.
Four garbage-conditioned “problem bears” have had to be euthanized in the District so far this year, one more than was put down in all of 2016 (which compares with 11 deaths in 2015). The latest was on June 27 near Grant Road and Maple.
In British Columbia as a whole, more than 700 black bears in total were put down in 2015 and 2016, mostly because of habituation to human food sources according to Mike Badry, wildlife-conflict manager for the province. This includes 85 on Vancouver Island. The stats represent a 30 precent decline from the number of bears killed annually about a decade ago in the province, but they’re still the predator most likely to come into conflict with people.
“It’s a tragedy every time a bear is killed and the frustrating thing is that it’s entirely preventable,” explains Debb Read, coordinator of Wild Wise Sooke, a proactive conservation and education program with the goal of keeping bears wild and citizens safe. “Most people are doing a great job, but there are just enough irresponsible homeowners out there to make this a perennial problem. It’ll only be solved when every last one of us gets serious about it.”
Bear hot-spots like Revelstoke, Kamloops, Port Coquitlam, Whistler, Squamish and Port Alberni have crafted effective municipal garbage bylaws that eliminate the temptations that lead bears astray. The District of Sooke currently has no waste management legislation but staff are investigating bearwise bylaws following a request last fall from Transition Sooke, which serves as Wild Wise Sooke’s fiscal host.
Adult black bears require up to 20,000 calories a day, says Dekelver, and there’s no easier way for them to carbo-load than by raiding outdoor garbage bins, compost piles and trash left roadside overnight prior to pick-up. They’re also partial to pet food, birdseed, greasy barbecues and even hummingbird feeders. Backyard chickens, if they’re not protected by an electric fence, can also be easy prey.
But it’s when bears become hooked on garbage that they lose their fear of humans and become increasingly aggressive. That’s when COs like Dekelver, a 10-year veteran of the service, are forced to take action.
The unfortunate bear put down late last month had been struck by a car last year. Its injured leg had healed badly and she moved awkwardly with a limp. Worse still, the bear had a reputation as a garbage hound on Sooke’s west side.
Dekelver and his colleagues had been closely monitoring the situation. The bear gave birth in the spring and, in recent weeks, had begun an alarming new behaviour by leaving her youngster behind and heading out in search of trash, which she’d then bring back to feed the cub. As a result, there was a strong risk that unwary humans might come between the mother and her offspring, the one situation in which a bear can predictably turn dangerous.
“It’s never easy for us and we don’t make these decisions lightly, but we had no choice but to put her down,” says Dekelver. The good news is that the orphaned cub has been relocated to the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre in Errington east of Parksville. Cubs are fed a “bear milk” replacement (cottage cheese, puppy chow, rice pablum, apple sauce and liquid fish vitamins) until they are old enough to start eating natural foods. They’re raised with minimal human contact and remain at the centre before being released into the wild once they’ve reached adolescence.
As CTV News reported last week, garbage-conditioned bears have become a province-wide concern. In May alone, 119 bears were euthanized in BC, double the number for the same month last year. As housing developments sprawl, wilderness habitat is being lost and bears are straying into communities in search of food.
“The problem is that bears find unnatural food sources, discover they’re replenished regularly and start hanging around for the free meals,” says Read, who ran the local WildSafe BC program prior to launching Wild Wise in 2015. “Garbage is manna to bears. With their incredible sense of smell, it’s a huge temptation.”
The District of Sooke uses bear-proof containers throughout the parks system, so the root of the issue lies with a small number of homeowners who store their garbage outside, leave compost containers within easy paw’s reach or put their trash bags curbside far earlier than necessary for effective pick-up, says Read.
Dekelver notes that garbage-related reports are on the rise this year, in part a result of cool weather that has prevented berries from ripening on schedule. Now that wild fruit is more readily available, he expects bears that haven’t become garbageholics will be drawn back to traditional food sources for the rest of the summer. Things will heat up again in the fall as bears focus on apple trees before the salmon return in October and November.
Wild Wise Sooke coordinates its activities with a team that includes Read, Dekelver and representatives from the District of Sooke, the RCMP and Transition Sooke. Councillor Brenda Parkinson recently joined the team as council liaison. Read keeps busy year-round offering educational talks, posting yellow “Bear In Area” signage in problem neighbourhoods and responding to complaints with home visits. She welcomes anyone interested in learning more or volunteering with the Wild Wise program to email her at email@example.com.
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