As bears shake off their winter's slumber, a Squamish conservation officer says now is the time to begin early prevention measures.
The BC Conservation Officer Service (BC COS) is well aware of the skepticism some residents have toward their services. Officers know some residents avoid calling them to report a problem and others going so far as to illegally trigger empty bear traps.
Sgt. Simon Gravel has worked in Squamish for 16 years, and with the BC Conservation Officer Service for a decade of that time. Before joining the COS, he worked for BC Parks, becoming well acquainted with human-wildlife conflict event then.
Loved to death
Gravel said he understands why people hesitate to call the COS, as what the public mostly hears are reports of bears being killed.
"They don't hear about the hundreds of times that we're responding to mitigate a situation to avoid the bears being shot," Gravel said.
In 2019, 10 bears were killed in Squamish — out of the 555 complaints the COS received about black bears in the area.
People often ask, after a bear is killed, what steps officers took to prevent that outcome.
"Some situations, we'll do a lot," he said. "Some situations, we didn't even know there was a bear conflict."
Two of the 10 bears destroyed in Squamish had previously been relocated. Seven bear cubs, including three brothers, were transferred to Critter Care and are scheduled to be released in the spring.
"We have very, very limited and isolated success with relocating a bear that reached a level of conflict that usually we are called for," Gravel said. That's why early intervention is key. I do believe that maybe moving a bear in the early stage of conflict can be successful, but that's not usually when people call us.
"It's shocking how fast [bears] will come back to the same address."
When a bear first enters a residential area, the COS has a variety of options to dissuade the bear from returning. The longer a bear is in the same area, and becoming more attached and protective of a food source, the greater the chances of that bear becoming aggressive towards humans. At the same time, COS's options to deal with the animal decreases.
"We have a lot of tools we can use to avoid this bear to get further into trouble. If that's not reported to us, people will call us eventually when the bear is in the house. That reinforces the idea that if they call us, the bear will be put down. We should probably have known three weeks or a month ago that this bear was escalating toward this level of conflict," he said.
"The bear will not make the difference between your backyard and the neighbour's backyard where there are kids playing on the trampoline," he said. "Believe me, it never leads to something positive for a bear to be comfortable in people's backyards. The next step is investigating the balcony, he's destroying barbeques, he's pushing into windows, he's trying to enter houses. Then, we're responding and everyone is concerned for their safety and the sake of the bear, when it could have been avoided in the first place by not letting those bears be comfortable in their backyard…. If you tolerate the bears in your backyard, you take pictures... it's bad news for the bear. You may love that situation at the cost of the bear's death."
Gravel said many people, him included, love bears. It's a part of our culture, he said, pointing to growing up playing with teddy bears.
While education efforts, attractant audits and ticketing have increased, Gravel said some people understand the measures, but don't believe it applies to them. They don't think they are part of the problem, Gravel said, comparing the situation to people who don't put their dogs on leashes.
He said while some are unaware, wildlife issues in residential areas can also come down to a sense of entitlement.
"We're trying to target this behaviour, where there's negligence between their knowledge and their action," he said. "If you don't want to take personal action and initiative, then we'll give you a fine."
In Squamish, the Conservation Officer Service is also seeing an increase in live-capture traps being triggered by people. It's an offence that can lead to charges under the Wildlife Act and as a criminal offence if the trap is damaged.
"Those people are becoming part of a problem, not a solution," Gravel said.
There's a reason why the trap is there, he said. It's either for public safety or for the sake of the bear. People who want to know why a bear trap is in a certain area can contact the COS to find out more.
Bad news, bears
Both the number of conflicts and the population of black bears has been increasing in Squamish.
"It is more and more common for us to have bears reported all year round. That's where the idea of climate change comes in," Gravel said. "The four seasons are becoming milder and milder and our summers longer and longer — then we'll have bears almost 12 months of the year. I can see the near future having a bear population that will not really den. We see that already on the North Shore."
Garbage cans act as constant food sources. Their availability is not based on the seasons, like natural food sources. Bears usually hibernate based on several factors: food availability and weather. When bears can't find food or have to move farther to find it, they start losing more calories than they're gaining. But changing weather patterns and access to an all-you-can-eat line-up of garbage means bears aren't burning those calories and don't need to seek shelter. The exception, Gravel said, is female bears hibernating to give birth.
"More and more, we see sow [female bears] coming up in the spring with three cubs. We rarely saw that five, six years ago," he said.
Spring solution: What you can do now
The number one attractant for wildlife of any kind is garbage. While Gravel said the District of Squamish has been proactive by providing bear-resistant garbage totes, those bins are not bear-proof. Given enough time, a bear will learn how to break in.
Gravel recommends securing totes by keeping them somewhere a bear can't access. Freezing waste before putting it out also helps by reducing the smell. Using compost — also kept in a bear-resistant bin — helps too.
The low-hanging fruit, so to speak, of attractants, are fruit trees in residential areas — which are also not a natural food source for animals.
"Often, nothing happens until something happens," Gravel said. "That's a very regular excuse we get from people. 'I've been here 20 years and had my fruit trees there and never had any bears.' Well, now you have one."
The Conservation Officer Service recommends cultivating fruit before it has a chance to get ripe. An electric fence can be effective in deterring wildlife.
"You don't want to wait for the ticket," he said. "Be a champion of living amongst wildlife."
Although you likely haven't used your barbeque in months, Gravel recommends making sure it's clean now and between uses.
As the community grows in both bear and human populations, Gravel asks people to keep an eye out and have a friendly chat with their neighbours about good wildlife practices.
Many new residents aren't used to living in bear country and are simply unaware of their impact.
"If it takes you a couple of weeks to get back into a good habit and good practice, then the timing will be good if you start now."
This season, the COS will also be trying a new technique. On-site release involves capturing a bear, then doing a 'hard release' to teach the bear it's not welcome in the neighbourhood. Using different devices, they'll try to scare the bear away from a nearby location where it's safe for the bear to run away. That will create a negative experience the bear will associate with the area so that it won't return.
Gravel said the technique has been successfully used in Washington State.
It has yet to be used in Squamish or the Sea to Sky because, as Gravel said, it's complicated and seems counter-intuitive to release a bear in an area where you don't want it.
For this technique to work, however, the COS needs the public to call about bears before the situation can escalate.
Contact the BC COS 24/7 at 1-877-952-RAPP. Find more information at www.bearsmart.com.