Bears in Fernie and the Elk Valley

“…for many of us the world would be a poorer place without bears. We keep bears because they are a part of nature and because of what they do for the human mind, body, and soul.” Steve Herrero in Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance.

The tiny black bear was scared and in a state of confusion as he charged through the green grass at the foot of the ski hill. The lift had been closed to the public for about an hour while the local conservation officer attempted to scare the curious bear away.

The bear grew bolder in recent weeks, accessing garbage outside the homes which line the eastern corner of the ski hill, and even attempting to break into a home. Yet this fateful Sunday, it came too close for comfort.

Black Bear

(Credit: Jen Orton)

The sound of bear bangers reverberated around the hill, the place was packed for community day, a day where local families enjoy free lift access for hiking and biking.

As it charged through the long grass the bear found itself on the deck of a restaurant. The restaurant door was ajar. It was clear the bear was debating whether to enter. Little did the bear know, but it effectively signed its own death warrant by clambering up on to that deck.

The conservation officer had laid a trap for the bear but it wasn’t interested, two shots rang out. The bear was killed at around 3.30pm on Sunday 9 July 2012.

This incident was just the latest in a series which has now claimed the lives of five black bears in the space of a month in the British Columbia mountain town of Fernie.

From 1978 to 1982 one person was killed by bears and eight injured. While from 1995 to 1999 three people were killed with14 reported injuries according to statistics provided by the BC Wildlife Branch.

However, in Fernie, the story is a little different. Despite the five black bears killed in the space of a month bears in Fernie fares well compared to some areas in BC.

On average three bears in Fernie are destroyed each year, a significant decrease in mortality since 2004. This year is seeing a reversal.

Elk Valley Bear Aware

(Source: Elk Valley Bear Aware)

Learning how to keep bears out of our neighbourhoods is an important step to keeping families’ safe and preventing the unnecessary destruction of bears.

Relocating ‘problem’ bears is a failed policy but it is easy to see why conservation officers used it. For example, one of the bears shot in Fernie was originally tagged in Alberta. Once a bear is conditioned to associate humans as a source of food there is really little hope, all relocation does is move the problem to a new community.

So what can you do if you encounter a bear while out hiking or even in town – a black bear has been spotted this summer in Fernie as far into town as Second Ave outside the Brickhouse, so you have to be prepared to encounter bears throughout the town.

I spoke with Kathy Murray from the Elk Valley Bear Aware program and asked what Fernie, Sparwood, and Elkford can do to prevent bears coming into their towns.

“Fernie can continue enforcing current bylaws prohibiting the storage of garbage outside between collection days and the placement of garbage on the curb prior to 7 am on the day of collection.We need to continue educational efforts addressing management of attractants:  garbage, cleaning up fruit trees, bring in birdfeeders and ensure all commercial dumpsters are kept closed during the day and locked at the end of the business day as per bylaw.” Kathy Murray – Bear Aware

Bears and Bird Feeders

(Credit: Laura Kali)

Kathy said: “The trend of human/bear conflict is decreasing in Fernie overall.  This spring there was a lot of bear activity and five bears destroyed however compared to other communities in BC we are still at the forefront of preventing human-bear conflict.”

Bird feeders should only be used in winter months when bears are hibernating. Canmore in Alberta bans the use of bird feeds during the winter; this is a measure Fernie and other Elk Valley towns should be introduced. But Fernie Council is not playing its part, a proposed wildlife attractant bylaw to ban bird feeders along the same lines as Canmore was not passed.

However, Kathy says Bear Aware is its continuing educational efforts stressing the importance of banning bird feeders during bear season.

In British Columbia, it is an offence to feed or leave out items which will attract bears and other dangerous animals, yet the problems in Fernie, Sparwood, and Elkford can be directly attributed to people leaving their garbage unsecured. Too many people leave out garbage on non-collection days. Garbage should be secured inside until collection day or a bear-resistant household container should be used.

While in Jasper National Park on a recent road-trip I was astounded at the number of people who do not follow the simple rules of not approaching wildlife. Along the highway from Banff to Jasper you’ll get the opportunity to see bears, it is part of the attraction of taking this incredible stretch of highway. Yet the behaviour of many tourists was deplorable, bear jams are regular occurrences as tourists leave their cars, breaking park rules, and approach the bears to take photographs.

Black Bear Garbage

(Credit: BC Government Photos)

Bears are as much a part of Canadian culture as people, perhaps even more so. Bears were roaming these lands before the first white man even set foot on the North American continent, and we can only hope they will continue to grace us with their presence.

Before coming to live and work in ‘bear country’ I had many of the normal preconceptions about bears. To be honest, I was scared of them, it seems silly looking back to be scared of an animal which wants to avoid contact with humans as much as we want to avoid contact with them.

However, when we invite these majestic animals into our towns and potentially our homes by hanging bird feeders or by leaving garbage out we only have ourselves to blame. Far too often humans are to blame for bear deaths in the Elk Valley.

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