Lesley Fox: Killing “problem” bears sends wrong message to public

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“When all the dangerous cliffs are fenced off, all the trees that might fall on people are cut down, all of the insects that bite have been poisoned...and all of the grizzlies are dead because they are occasionally dangerous, the wilderness will not be made safe. Rather, the safety will have destroyed the wilderness.”
- R. Yorke Edwards, Canadian environmentalist

When you live in British Columbia, you can expect to see a few bears. Virtually the entire province, including the coast and the islands, is traditional bear habitat.

So it should not come as a shock when people see black bears in B.C., yet the public, and especially the media, continues to sound the alarm whenever one is spotted.

The number of so-called problem bears being shot and killed in this province is staggering. According to current estimates from the Ministry of the Environment, each year approximately 2,200 complaints regarding black bears are investigated by provincial conservation officers. Out of those complaints, an average of 600 bears are killed and only about 100 bears are relocated.

Experts agree that the number of human-bear conflicts are largely related to dwindling bear habitat. When bears are on the move in search of food they are attracted to easily accessible garbage, outdoor pet food, bird seed, dirty recycling, and grease-laden barbecues.

Once bears become used to the all-you-can eat buffet in your backyard, it is difficult to change their behaviour. But we can change ours.

Here are some quick tips to help prevent bears from being habituated to human food:

Ӣ Never directly or indirectly feed a wild animal.

”¢ Don’t put your garbage out until the morning.

Ӣ Never leave pet food outside.

Ӣ Pick up fallen fruit. Pick berries as soon as they ripen.

Ӣ Wash and cut up your recyclable containers.

”¢ Don’t overfeed the birds. Extra bird seed on the ground attracts small animals, which in turn attracts larger ones.

Ӣ Clean your barbecue well or secure it in the garage after use.

Keeping your house tidy is certainly helpful, but even then you still might see a bear roaming through your community. Therefore it is also helpful to remember that, apart from rare instances, most bears do not pose a threat to human safety.

Many bears that wander into our urban environments are simply lost and confused. No need to sound the alarm, or overreact, or kill them. Often, just leaving them alone solves any potential issue, allowing them to move along on their own. Or, with a little care by wildlife experts, bears can be redirected to a safer location.

Why then do B.C.’s conservation officers usually respond by killing the bears? Frankly, it is because their job is to protect people first, not the animals. Even when the threat is perceived rather than real.

While conservation officers may claim their response to wildlife situations are treated on a case-by-case basis, no doubt there is an expectation that the animal will be shot and killed. After all, it is quick, easy, cheap, and reassures the public that everything is now okay.

But does killing so-called problem animals send a bad and erroneous message to the public? If you ask me, it teaches us that animals are to be feared, they are disposable, and killing them quickly solves our problems.

Rather than pulling the trigger, perhaps we can learn how to react appropriately.

If or when we come across a black bear, experts advise:

”¢ Stay calm, don’t run, keep the animal in your view.

”¢ Don’t make any sudden movements; don’t turn your back, simply back up slowly.

Ӣ Make yourself look as large as possible, keeping the animal in front of you at all times. Sudden movement may provoke an attack.

Ӣ If the animal shows interest or follows you, respond by acting aggressively. Maintain eye contact, show your teeth and make loud noises. Throw rocks, arm yourself with sticks or anything else that can be used as a weapon. Crouch down as little as possible when bending down to pick up things off of the ground.

Ӣ Convince the animal you are a threat and not prey. Make noise!

Killing a wild animal shouldn’t be the first choice in responding to human-wildlife conflicts. For our sake and theirs, it is imperative to adjust our reactions and learn to coexist with all who inhabit the ecosystems we share. Showing reverence and humility would be a healthy start.

Lesley Fox is the executive director of the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals, a nonprofit animal-protection organization based in Burnaby.

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Sarah Loewen
Thanks for this - there is a huge opportunity to create more awareness about how to behave around wild animals. I've seen people behave quite ridiculously when they see a bear on the side of the road. These people aren't malicious, it comes from a place of simply not understanding the consequences of human interaction with wild animals.
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