B.C. will no longer relocate large carnivores long distances once they have been in conflict with humans or habituated to human food. Instead, an updated Ministry of the Environment policy says the animals will be destroyed if aversion measures to promote fear of people cannot be implemented.
More than 700 black bears were killed in B.C. in 2015-2016, mostly because of habituation to humans or human food sources, said Mike Badry, wildlife-conflict manager for the ministry’s Conservation Officer Service. Of those, 591 were killed by conservation officers, and the rest by RCMP officers and others. That includes 85 on Vancouver Island. It’s a major decline from more than 1,000 black bears killed about a decade ago, but they’re still the predator most likely to come into conflict with people.
In 2015-16, people called the province to report black bears more than 18,000 times, including nearly 3,200 calls from the Island that resulted in 450 in-person responses by conservation officers.
Across the province, 17 black bears were relocated, 151 were hazed by loud noise or pain stimulation to instil fear of humans, and 54 cubs sent to rehabilitation facilities.
“We want to put the emphasis on conflict prevention,” Badry said, now that people are moving farther into what was once wildlife territory, putting roads where predators once roamed and increasing the chance of conflict. “And in the case of conflict, it’s the larger predators that end up shot.” It’s habituation, and rarely aggression toward humans, that determines their destruction, he said.
The policy, which had not been changed since 2001, brings the procedures for conservation officers in line with what they were already doing.
“It was basically catching up with reality,” Badry said, adding that conservation officers were on board with the revision, with other stakeholders such as provincial biologists and the wildlife veterinarian consulted.
“Long-distance translocation can be expensive and time-consuming, but that is not why it is discouraged,” Badry said. “It is discouraged because it is an ineffective management technique to deal with wildlife conflicts.”
Carnivores taken outside their home ranges seldom adjust well, according to data from ear tags on carnivores captured and released by conservation officers. The animals either have to fight it out in food zones where other predators are already established, or run long distances in unfamiliar territory seeking hunting grounds of their own, he said.
“They just move long distances and when they do that, all kinds of bad things can happen: They starve to death, they freeze to death, they get predated on, they get killed on our roads. The outcome for them is very likely to be negative when you take them those long distances. We tried it a lot more in the past, but the evidence is that it didn’t work.”
Lesley Fox, executive director of the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals, decried the “culture of killing” that exists within the Conservation Officer Service in an open letter to B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak this week.
“While officers may tell the media that they never want to kill animals, the Preventing and Responding to Conflicts with Large Carnivores policy used by the COS does not at any point require non-lethal measures to be used in conflict. In fact, there is no preventative action required between receiving a conflict call and use of lethal force by officers,” Fox wrote.
When it comes to cougars, officers may use lethal force to deal with a non-violent potential conflict situation, Fox said, “but are not first required to enact preventative measures, work with municipalities or homeowners to address attractants, or utilize non-lethal hazing techniques,” she wrote.
The B.C. policy should mandate that “all non-lethal options are to be exhausted prior to escalation” rather than every option left as discretionary, Fox said.
The document outlining the policy change claims a “great vision” of preventing conflict between large carnivores and humans, but “details about funding and delivering this prevention are not presented,” said Chris Darimont, science director for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and a professor at the University of Victoria.
Darimont suspects the new policy emerged from the furor the province faced in July 2015 when a conservation officer lost his job for disobeying what Darimont called an “unethical and arbitrary order” to kill two bear cubs. Their mother had already been destroyed for raiding a freezer of salmon at a Port Hardy mobile home. An online petition for the officer’s reinstatement reached more than 300,000 supporters, but Bryce Casavant now works for another ministry and is vying for the NDP nomination for the new riding of Courtenay-Comox for 2017 B.C. election.
Darimont said the new policy tries to prevent “abuse by supervisors” issuing kill directives, but also to keep COs from disobeying such orders, as some had done.
The bear cubs in question, Athena and Jordan, were released in June 2016 wearing GPS collars, according to the website of the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre, which states: “So far, these cubs are doing well in the wild.”
Twelve bear cubs were sent to rehab in 2015-16 on the Island, ministry figures show. Only one black bear was relocated on Vancouver Island in 2015-16 and 22 were hazed to make them fear or avoid humans and human activity and food.
In the same period, conservation officers destroyed 35 cougars, with only one, sighted in Victoria, moved a significant distance.
Many factors influence the decision on whether to destroy a black bear, but usually it involves how comfortable that bear is around people and how conditioned it is to getting human food and making the association that humans equal food, Badry said.
Non-lethal management techniques are much preferable to long-distance relocation for bears that are not deemed to be a high risk.
Non-lethal techniques, such as inducing fear of humans by unpleasant stimulation to stay away from food sources, can only work if the animal “has not had the ability to become habituated to people already or become conditioned to feeding on human food sources. Once they’ve had that experience, those kinds of non-lethal techniques are very ineffective,” he added.
That’s because wildlife are highly motivated to find food, and they will come back to a food source if they know it’s there.
“So it’s important to get to them early before they go down those kinds of conditioning pathways.”
B.C. is lucky to still have large predators in the wild and “proactive conflict reduction” is the key to keeping them alive, Badry said.
“The onus really falls on people to not be attracting them to those places where they’re going to end up in conflict with us. Because we know that when that happens, it’s the predator that’s going to lose. So that’s really where we want to take this.
“Let’s bring these conflict numbers down,” he said. “And we’re doing that through programs like the Bear Smart communities and WildSafe B.C. that really promote education.”
Seven communities have achieved Bear Smart status, including Port Alberni. To attain such status, communities must prepare a bear-hazard assessment, a bear-human conflict management plan and stewardship committee, a continuing public-education program and bear-proof municipal solid-waste management system, as well as “Bear Smart” bylaws.
Darimont said B.C. has a “misguided” policy that suggests increasing the harvest limits for trappers and hunters as a way to reduce predators in high-conflict areas of B.C.
“This is because hunters and trappers typically target larger, older animals, whereas conflict is dominated by younger animals in populations.”