HISTORY OF ONE BEAR
Standing on the edge of the meadow, the young bear clips the heads off of the dandelions and swallows them. He’s been on the move ever since his mother drove him off. Trailing her for a couple days, she chased him away whenever he got close. The last time he tried to approach, the large male bear with her chased him until he took refuge in the highest branches of an old cottonwood. In pouring rain, he stayed in the tree overnight. When he climbed down, he could not follow her scent.
For days, he wandered trying to find her, stopping only to feed and rest. His food consisted of an assortment of plants erupting from the earth – new grass, clover, dandelions, plus ants, grubs, and beetles. Once he came across an old carcass, but was driven off by a large sow with yearling cubs.
A short distance away, a vehicle stops along the roadway. Strange sounds come from it as he stands up to test the wind and get a better look. The smell of humans drifts on the breeze and as his mother taught him, he immediately turns and runs into the timber. He does not slow until thick undergrowth closes in.
His travels carry him to unfamiliar territory, as his nose guides him to any available food. Farms and buildings become more common and he skirts them in the dark, wary of the scent of people and dogs.
Hunger a constant companion as he travels throughout the dark and sleeps during the day. Twice he is frightened by humans and dogs when they come near his day beds. Both times, he flees to the safety of dense undergrowth along streams.
Crossing a road in the dark, he picks up a combination of smells he’s never experienced before. At first, he is reluctant to go near, because of traces of human scent. But, the richness of the other scents lures him in, and cautiously, he approaches.
In the ditch lies a large, dark lump, nearly as big as he is. Lying down, he watches before sneaking up and nudging it with a front paw. It moves slightly and he jumps back. It lays still. He edges up to it and nudges it again. It gives way under his paw and rips open easily when a claw hooks it. The scents spilling from it entice him. He digs out a few scraps of meat. Then some fruit. An empty peanut butter jar. Mouldy bread. A half eaten hamburger. Chicken bones.
The next night he finds two more sites where he obtains an assortment of food scraps, and the following night, more.
He begins to spend more time in areas where this food is common and less time in the bush. The scent of humans becomes less frightening as he associates it with the food he is finding. He approaches farms and houses in the dark. On the scattered farms there is little to eat, but where the houses are close together, food is more common and readily available.
He finds food in barrels at many of the houses he visits. The barrels are easy to knock over to retrieve the food. He does not have to travel far as food is plentiful. There are no other bears to compete with.
At times, people yell at him as he feeds beside houses. The first few instances, he flees immediately upon seeing or hearing them. But, his fear soon diminishes as no harm comes to him. He learns to ignore them, or if they are persistent, he simply moves to another location.
He climbs into a large barrel after being enticed by a particularly appetizing smell. Bites into a piece of food hanging inside and gives it a pull. A loud clang scares him and he tries to leave but can not find a way out. Digging and clawing does no good. He is caught.
People crowd around the trap. He growls, spits, and pops his teeth, but the people do not run from him and he cannot escape. Poked with a stick, he becomes drowsy. Falls and gets back up, only to fall again. No longer able to rise, he is pulled from the barrel, ear tagged, and loaded into it again. Once he regains his mobility, the barrel begins to move as it is dragged behind a truck over a series of rough roads. The truck stops in a grassy meadow and the barrel opens. He jumps out and runs as hard as he can until he is winded and lays exhausted in thick underbrush.
After dark, hunger drives him to look for food. He knows only one place that can supply endless amounts of food. Three nights later he comes upon the familiar surroundings where food is plentiful.
He avoids a barrel trap when he sees it again. Early morning and late evening daylight hours extend his feeding time. He encounters more people and comes to no harm from them. As night time temperatures rise, windows are left open and familiar smells drift through them.
He pushes aside a screen and climbs through an open window. In the kitchen he finds food and begins feasting. A woman screams nearby and he picks up a loaf of bread and flees through the window. He tries to return, but the window is sealed tight. He goes to another house.
A truck drives up and stops on the street. A man gets out. He walks toward the bear.
Fifty metres away, the brown-coloured bear turns to look back at me. He scales a two metre wood fence and disappears.
Skirting this fence and the one next door, I pass through a yard to walk out to the curb, then back along the street to see him in a carport. Garbage can knocked over, he is tearing open a black bag and scattering the contents. Holding it down with one paw, he licks out an empty jam jar. A McDonald’s Happy Meal bag is ripped open and the remains of a hamburger is devoured, paper and all.
Down the street, a woman pushing a stroller moves toward me. I put up my arm. She stops and stands looking at me, a puzzled expression on her face. The bear comes out of the carport with a white grocery bag full of garbage in its mouth and crosses the street between us. She wheels the stroller around and trots away.
The bear stops under a small spruce beside a car in the driveway of a split-level house. A man stands behind a picture window, looking out. Two children come and stand with him as the bear shreds the bag. It eats some unidentifiable bits and pieces of green leaves or vegetables as I move closer. At thirty metres, the bear stands broadside, its vital organs an easy target for the 12 gauge shotgun loaded with rifle slugs that I carry pointed at the ground. Behind the bear is the house and car. A missed shot or a bullet passing through could cause damage. Not a viable option.
The bear turns to face me, with its white chest patch clearly distinguishable. I’ve followed this bear twice before and seen a number of photos. The ear tag indicates he was a problem somewhere else and ended up here after being relocated.
Four weeks ago the complaints began, a bear in the dark, knocking over cans and eating garbage in backyards. The first report was of a grizzly with a white patch on its chest. A woman arriving home in her car was about to step out when she saw it between her and the house. A couple of fuzzy cell phone photos show the face and chest of a brown coloured black bear. Being the first complaint, no trap is set and advice on managing garbage and other food sources provided. Perhaps the bear is just passing through and other priorities prevail.
Soon, there are scattered complaints of a brown bear in different neighbourhoods on a nightly basis. Driving through the problem areas reveal numerous knocked over cans and scattered garbage, but only a small percentage of people calling in. A culvert trap is set for a few days and although the bear passes nearby, he doesn’t go into it.
Over the next couple of weeks the bear’s activities begin to shift. No longer restricted to the dark, he is seen in the first and last hours of daylight, six to seven in the morning, eight to nine at night.
I arrive one evening at sunset, to see him feeding on garbage in a backyard. He looks up when the truck stops. Nervous when I step out, the distance between us sixty metres, he flees over a fence into the bush.
A week later, I see him again. Lying in a front yard, he doesn’t look up until I am out of the truck and forty metres away. He gets up and stands over a bag of garbage, popping his teeth. I back off ten metres and approach from a different direction, trying to get him to move away from the house and toward the bush across the road. He watches me, then goes next door and cuts through the carport into the backyard.
I follow, pushing into his personal space, as the distance between us closes. At thirty metres he stands nervously at the base of a backyard tree. I step toward him and he climbs up about four metres. I stand under the tree. It is small and he has gone up as high as he can. Circling the tree, I can’t find an angle that will provide a safe shot.
A man comes out of the house and agrees to try and keep the bear treed while I get a culvert trap, bait it with scraps of meat, and back it in as close as I can.
In the dark, the trap is set twenty metres from the bear and I leave it overnight. The bear is gone in the morning. The next few days he’s seen mid-morning and afternoon.
My watch reads 09:45 am. The bear moves between a couple of houses and goes around back. I peek around the corner to see him on a raised deck. He finds a hummingbird feeder and stands up to lick it before knocking it to the ground and polishing off the remains.
Looking down the row of yards behind me, I see two small children playing three houses down. I move out from the house to block the way, should the bear decide to go that direction.
The bear comes down from the deck and walks along a fence with a barking German Shepard on the other side. The bear ignores the dog and proceeds to the next yard, walks to the ground level deck doors and stands up. Front paws on the glass, he pauses for a moment before going to an empty dog dish and turning it over. He can smell food, but can’t find it.
With his nose in the air, he heads across an alley, through a backyard and goes into a carport. A garbage can with bungee cords across the lid is knocked over, pried open, and the contents examined. A nearby house door opens to the outside and a man comes part way out before quickly turning and re-entering the house. A heavy door slams inside.
I move closer and the bear picks up a bag of garbage and moves across the street to a forested hillside. He rips open the bag as I close the distance.
Thirty. The bear looks toward me, but does not move away.
Twenty five. The bear is broadside. I watch his eye. He is evaluating me, considering.
I stop, shotgun pointed at the ground between us. Wait. Close enough to smell him. The odour distinct. Recognizable. A garbage bear.
He pulls the carcass of a grilled chicken from the bag and chews on it. I hear the bones crunch.
Twenty. He stands on all fours, still, staring at me, not making a sound.
Fifteen metres. He is agitated. Quiet. Deciding what to do. Head turned. Both eyes focused on me. Ears slightly back.
Will he leave or will he come at me?
The shotgun is up. Stock firmly embedded into my shoulder. The front bead fills the gap in the rear sight, safety off. A hillside directly behind him.
His eyes shift from me to the garbage in front of him. He turns his head and I get a full side view. The front sight shifts halfway between his eye and the base of his ear.
The gun fires.
Death is instantaneous.
British Columbia is home to an estimated 120,000 to 150,000 black bears and 10,000 to 20,000 grizzly bears. Every year, conservation officers and police officers destroy from 400 to 1,000 black bears and a few grizzly bears that are deemed to be a threat to people or property. They also investigate up to ten or twelve attacks on people by bears in order to determine if the attack was predatory (meaning the bear considered the subject of the attack as a food source) or defensive (meaning the bear was defending cubs, a food source, personal space, or something else). Every effort is made to ensure only the offending bear is targeted for removal and that other bears in the area are not affected.
Grizzly bears are generally relocated, unless they are determined to be badly injured, too old, diseased, or too great a threat to people or property. In the majority of cases, black bears are destroyed. Due to the high black bear population, there is little or no habitat available that is not already saturated with black bears. Research done on relocated bears indicates that relocating black bears often results in one of three outcomes: the bears can return from distances in excess of 100 kms; they will revert back to their bad habits and get into conflicts with people in a new location; or they will get into conflicts with resident bears where they are released. Their long term survival is questionable at best.
Problem bears is a term used to describe bears who are habituated to human food sources (garbage, pet or livestock feed, fruit trees, domestic animals, etc) and/or who are unafraid of humans. Although the history of individual bears varies, generally problem bears are caused by people leaving food out where it is accessible. Whether it is food left available in camp grounds, garbage cans in the city, or garbage dumped in the woods, bears quickly become conditioned to human-based food sources and within a short time will forgo natural food sources to feed exclusively on garbage and other easily obtained foods. The longer a bear feeds on these food sources and interacts with people, the less fear and respect it has for humans and it will often become more aggressive towards people or their property. When this happens, it is usually just a matter of time before the bear is destroyed by a conservation officer or a police officer who is compelled to dispatch the bear to protect the safety and property of local residents.
Bears deserve respect and admiration. They are highly intelligent animals and will quickly adapt to feeding on any easily obtained food. Much like a pet is trained by being rewarded with food, bears are rewarded for unwanted and unsafe behaviour by obtaining human-related food. They have very good memories and will recall where they found food or repeat whatever action helped them to acquire it. One successful food-gaining experience is often all that is needed for them to learn new behaviours.
Unless the behaviour of the people leaving out food sources which attract bears changes, each bear removed will be replaced by another and the cycle will continue. Everyone needs to be diligent and avoid bears accessing human related food sources, in order to ensure the survival of individual bears and the continuation of healthy populations of wild bears for future generations.