It's been a bad year for bears in B.C.

A tough foraging season for bears led to an increased number of bear-human conflicts across the province this year.

Every year, thousands of bears come into conflict with human activity in cities limits across the province. Hundreds are destroyed after consuming human food sources. The city of Kamloops is no exception.

Environment-related fluctuations of temperature and delayed natural food seasons this year caused a rise in the appearance of bears within city limits.

Although the number of bears that have been destroyed within city limits in B.C. has declined since the mid-1990s — from close to 1,000 down to about 700 a year — 2008 marked a notable increase in bear activity.

While biologists have not cited climate change as a direct cause, the increased bear activity within Kamloops was the result of weather conditions and “a late start to spring,” said Sadie Cox, program delivery specialist for Bear Aware in Kamloops.

Black bears, which are the main species of bears active near communities in the Thompson-Nicola region, rely on berries as one of their main food sources. But increased frost, which delayed ripening, produced a poor berry season across the province, bringing bears closer to human activity in the search for alternative sources of food.

These alternative food sources, often called “bear attractants”, come in the form of bird feeders, fruit trees, barbecues and garbage.

Many bears are staying in town longer and returning repeatedly to positively rewarded sources of food, according to Bear Aware records.

Resources for dealing with this problem are severely limited, with only 77 field or conservation officers available to deal with the 18,000 complaints of bear activity throughout the province.

As the seasons progress, bears need to obtain food with high caloric content to create the greater body mass they need for winter hibernation.

“Garbage is full of calories,”said Jacques Drisdelle, provincial co-ordinator of Bear Aware.

When bears approach communities, they are offered an accessible supply of food in terms of human waste and negligence. Bears find food sources in the form of trash bins and other “bear attractants.” In the bear world, survival of the fittest can often be translated into survival of the fattest. Bears need calories to survive and when there is a shortage of food, bears will often travel great distances in search of it.

“Food is central to the lives of bears,” Drisdelle said. City sources of food like garbage offer bears many calories without as much work to acquire it.

Unfortunately, bears often have to be shot when they become problems within communities.

Relocation does occur, but it is not always realistic or advisable.

In many cases, when bears are released, they will travel back to a human source of food. In others, bears face competition with other bears for food sources.

“Dominance plays a major role in survival,” said Drisdelle.

Young bears often cannot compete with older, more aggressive ones. As a result, “aggressive bears get better food,” said Drisdelle.

While there is a perception that bear and human conflicts within communities is commonplace, old news or something that cannot be changed, Kamloops and other cities in B.C. are trying to be more proactive in addressing bear problems.

Through public educational programs, the city supports informing its citizens to be bear aware. Under city bylaws, a financial penalty applies to individuals, families and organizations that improperly store and maintain bear attractants.

Whistler is the first community to establish a working group with community members, conservation officers and Bear Aware officials. In its fourth year of research, the Whistler Bear Working Group tries to prevent loss of bear life through public education, promoting effective ways of storing and transporting waste and methods of “hard release,” a process in which conservation officers present a problem bear with unpleasant stimulants, such as rubber bullets or bear spray during relocation in an attempt to dissuade the bear from approaching human environments.

According to Drisdelle, the success of the Whistler Bear Working Group will determine if similar programs will be incorporated to other communities across the province.

Individuals can do their part in eliminating available food sources for bears when they come within city limits.

“The idea is to keep the message alive,” said Drisdelle.

And the bears.

Photo courtesy of B.C. Conservation Officer Services
Garbage often becomes an attractive source of food for bears preparing for hibernation.

Bear attractants to avoid

Garbage - keep indoors until at least 4 a.m. on the day scheduled for pickup.

Compost

Bird feeders

Barbecues - clean off regularly and don’t leave remnants of food on it after use.

Pet food - if you feed your pet outside, bring in the bowl and any waste once the animal has finished.

Fruit trees - pick all fruit when ripe. Don’t leave rotting fruit on trees. The Kamloops Food Bank is available to pick up any unwanted fruit.