Why here? Why now?
A couple of weeks ago, there was a bear in my parking lot. I have lived in my building for nearly 10 years, and as far as I know this hasn’t happened before. I live in a high-density housing area comprised of several apartment style condo buildings covering several blocks. On one side is the TransCanada Highway and on the other is an increasingly busy town road that connects my neighbourhood to downtown. There isn’t much bear habitat for bears in my area, and the walking trails that separate the housing from the roads don’t contain fruit-bearing bushes or trees. I was perplexed.
The first day she wandered into our parking lot. That’s my balcony in the upper right of the photo. This picture was posted on a local community facebook group.
What was this black bear doing here?
Any time a bear is in town, we get concerned about the risk to people. When a bear and a person encounter each other, the outcome is dependent on how each party reacts. A person may see a bear and be excited at the experience of quietly watching the bear eat berries, or a person may call out to the bear and try to shoo it away, or a person may even run away screaming. All of these potential human reactions can elicit a different behavioural response from the bear. Similarly, how a bear reacts to seeing people can be based on many things that we don’t see: its history of human encounters, the amount of food available, and even its mood that day.
What happens before the encounter is equally, if not more important. We are responsible for what our towns, neighbourhoods, streets, and yards look (and smell) like. When a bear comes to town, people have often already set the stage for drama.
Setting the Stage for Trouble
People who work with minimizing human-bear conflict often talk about attractant management, which means ensuring bears don’t have access to human created food sources. A bear who accesses food provided by people becomes food conditioned, learns to associate people with food, and can become aggressive in order to retain access to the food source. This is one of the most dangerous situations a person and a bear can be in – a bear defending a food source, or a bear expecting a person to provide food. These kinds of situations usually end with a poor Wildlife Officer being forced to destroy a bear in order to protect people.
Most people think of attractant management as being associated with not leaving a cooler of food unattended and keeping a clean site when camping. Good attractant management, however, extends to how we live our lives in town too. The Town of Canmore has a wildlife attractant bylaw preventing residents from composting or having bird feeders in their yards among other things. Bow Valley Wildsmart also encourages residents to keep clean bbq’s and not to leave pet food outside. This is part of preventing bears from coming into our yards and getting a food reward. One of the last remaining human created food attractans that is still a massive problem in Canmore on residential property is fruit trees. Crab apples, choke cherries, and may berries all produce pretty flowers in the spring, but they also produce abundant fall fruit that bears loves. A black bear is more than happy to hang out in a crab apple tree for a few days feasting on fruit – s/he doesn’t care if it’s next to your driveway or where your kids catch the school bus. But we care.
We are responsible for the species of trees growing in our yards. When it comes to fruit trees we have a choice – either pick the fruit before it ripens and becomes an attractant, or don’t have a fruit tree.
Our Neighbourhood Bear
I was stunned to see that the bear coming into my neighbourhood wasn’t getting food from the trails in the forest, but from the trees lining the sidewalks. When I walked my neighbourhood streets searching for bear food, I had no problems finding some. There were choke cherries whose branches hung heavy with fruit, dog wood whose bright white berries call out to bears, may berries whose shiny red/orange berries look so delicious even I want to dive in. All of these food sources are human introduced as part of the condo buildings’ landscaping. It’s not only introduced species that are a problem, even native species like dog wood and buffalo berry that are natural, can attract bears to our streets.
The black bear spent nearly a week in my neighbouhood. Photos on our community facebook page were posted daily reminding residents that a bear was there. We sat down as a family and talked about making sure to avoid the forested trails in the evenings and at night, carry our bear spray, and make noise while walking through the neighbourhood. I wondered how many other households were having similar conversations though?
Every day, a Fish and Wildlife Officer patrolled the streets and tried to figure out what to do with this little bear. My instinctual reaction was for Fish and Wildlife to haze the bear out of the neighbourhood and back into the forest on the other side of the road. This forest leads to the Bow River and away from town, and is likely where the bear came from. Sounds easy enough, so what’s the problem?
Here’s the bear in my parking lot a few days later. You can see the bear trap in the background.
The problem is that one Fish and Wildlife Officer cannot safely haze a bear, control traffic, and redirect people away from the bear’s path. Doing this effectively would require a team of maybe 6 people: 1 to stop traffic, 2 to haze the bear safely across the road, and 1-2 more to stop people from walking into the area where all this work was happening. IF the team was able to haze the bear safely, there is no guarantee that the bear wouldn’t be back the next day because my neighbourhood is full of delicious fruit trees.
After several days without this black bear naturally finding its way out of town, Fish and Wildlife Officers and the Town of Canmore Conservation Officers decided to translocate this bear 140km away. They tranqulized it, tagged it, and moved it to a land far away. Ah. Problem solved.
The Trouble with Moving Bears
A colleague of mine once remarked:
“People think we take these bears out of the problem area and drop them off in some kind of bear utopia where there’s lots of food and no people and all is well. But it’s just not like that at all.”
Moving a bear is rarely successful. Bears can either find their way back to where the trouble started, or they end up being lost in an unknown landscape. When we move bears, there are two options based on how far away the bear is moved: translocation or relocation. Relocation is when a bear is moved within its home range. Translocation is when a bear is moved outside of its home range.
A home range is the area that a bear requires to meet all of its needs – food, security, mates. The size of a bear’s home range varies from just over 100Km2 to over 500km2 depending on their age, sex, and species. A bear knows his or her home range the same way you know your city. Relocation is akin to taking you and dropping you off on the other side of your city. It’s strange and when you wake up in a drug haze, it might take you a bit to figure out where you are. But, eventually you will figure it out and go about your business. If the food where you were captured was good enough, you’ll figure out how to get back to it. If the experience was traumatic enough, you may choose to avoid the area where you were captured. Every time a bear is relocated, managers can’t guarantee that the bear won’t come back to the area where it was trapped. Often, it returns to the same food source in a matter of days.
Translocation means moving a bear far, far away. This is akin to taking you and dropping you off in New Delhi (or some other far off land). You don’t know where the food is, you don’t know the people, you don’t know who is friendly and who isn’t, you don’t know where to find safety or shelter. Translocation also has a low success rate. Research shows that translocated bears have increased rates of traveling for several years after being moved – they spend all their time looking for food and trying to avoid trouble with other bears or people. This affects how healthy they are when go into hibernation and their overall survival rate. In addition, bears who are translocated because they start to get habituated to people and human food sources often seek out similar habitats. These bears often end up in other human communities or around hunters and get into trouble again.
The reality is that most translocated bears live a hard life and likely die within a few years. The bear from my neighbourhood was translocated. If she makes it back to our neighbourhood, she’ll be destroyed. If she finds someone else’s neighbourhood, she’ll be destroyed. If she somehow manages to avoid people, she has a high chance of ending up too weak to defend herself from another bear and will likely die. All of this because we needed to have pretty flowering trees lining our streets in the spring?
Moving bears isn’t the answer. It doesn’t guarantee an outcome. What guarantees an outcome is figuring out how to effectively manage people, but only if we do it right and if people follow through.
Taking Personal Responsibility is the Best Solution
Even though we’ve created neighbourhoods with green spaces around or through them, these aren’t the spaces most attractive to bears. Even if these green spaces are designed to facilitate wildlife movement through a neighbourhood safely, they won’t work if there is food that attracts bears to the sidewalk. We need to manage our yards with the same intention that we expect the Town to manage our local green spaces. The Town of Canmore is implementing a program to support residents to remove fruit trees, or fine them if they don’t.
It seems harsh, but I think this is great. Thinking about your yard, and the trees in it, puts the power of human-bear coexistence in the hands of the people. This is the best kind of solution because it’s one we can all do individually and together. We’re at a crossroads in many parts of bear range in western Canada. We can either choose to share a landscape with them or not and we are all responsible as individuals to move towards the former.