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Bear encounters increasing as populations grow, drought continues

A black bear was seen meandering along the Gorge Waterway and Portage Inlet on Friday, while another bear was spotted at Royal Roads University

Conservation officers were cautiously watching a black bear meander along the Gorge Waterway and Portage Inlet on Friday morning, edging close to parks and a school and into some driveways before it vanished along the E&N Rail trail.

The young bear was likely looking for easy pickings of food as it bulks up for hibernation — possibly fish and shellfish, as it went under docks — but also garbage or dropped fruit and birdseed in the yards of nearby residents.

Later on Friday, another bear was spotted on the campus of Royal Roads University, prompting officials to warn residents about hiking alone and keeping pets on a leash.

Bear encounters, ­particularly in urban areas, have sky­rocketed this year, according to the B.C. Conservation Officer Service. It said human and bear populations are both increasing and the boundaries between habitats are blurring.

Len Butler, deputy chief of provincial operations, said calls to the Conservation Officer Service’s report line have seen a “dramatic increase” across the province.

During August, more than 6,000 complaints about bears were logged — nearly double the 3,500 received in the same month a year ago. September’s data are still being compiled and Butler is expecting another record month.

Butler believes the increase in encounters is the result of rising populations and extended periods of drought, which have depleted natural foods for the bears, including berries.

“In a lot of areas, drought has really hit the berry crops,” said Butler. “So bears unfortunately follow their noses to other food in urban areas, like human attractants.”

As hibernation draws near, black bears have a natural ­obsession with gaining weight to survive a long sleep.

“A bear’s nose and sense of smell is about six times greater than a bloodhound’s,” said ­conservation officer Stuart Bates, and human garbage is often the easiest food source to obtain.

Often, that urge to feed makes bears lose their fear of humans.

BearWise B.C., an advocacy group for bruins, said by fall, bears are foraging up to 20 hours a day in a “power-eating marathon” called hyperphagia.

During hyperphagia, bears need to eat 10 times the calories they normally consume — at least 20,000 calories a day — to put on as much weight and insulating fat as possible before turning in for the winter.

Even bears that live in warmer climates and den later or sometimes not at all still go into hyperphagia in the fall, according to BearWise B.C.

BearWise notes that a pound of acorns has about 2,100 calories and a pound of blueberries, just 256 calories.

“It takes many hours of foraging each day for bears to find 20,000 calories worth of nuts and berries,” says BearWise. “But just one bird feeder full of black-oil sunflower seed or one garbage container overflowing with leftovers can reward a bear with a day’s worth of calories for less than an hour’s work.”

Butler said with compost and garbage such an easy ­alternative for bears, it’s up to ­municipalities and regional districts to develop and enforce regulations around garbage collection.

Residents should be storing compost in freezers and garages in secure locations until the morning of pickup.

Residents should also be mindful of cleaning up fruit and monitoring bird feeders, keeping pet food inside and keeping their barbecues clean.

“Every town and city has to have bylaws and enforce the bylaws,” said Butler, adding the problem won’t go away without reinforcement.

Not every bear sighting has to be reported to conservation officers. Some might be ­travelling through. However, Butler said when a bear starts to rummage in garbage, won’t leave and is being a threat, it should be reported.

Wildlife protection charity The Fur-Bearers said the B.C. Conservation Officer Service had to kill 500 black bears in 2022. The data were obtained through a freedom of ­information request.

“Believe me, it’s not something our officers want to do or feel good about doing,” said Butler.

Aaron Hofman, director of advocacy and policy at The Fur-Bearers, said black bears are often killed when they begin accessing garbage.

The group compiled a list of communities that saw the most deaths, saying by identifying communities where bears are killed with greater frequency, “questions about systemic issues can be asked, and the killing can end.”

According to the Fur -Bearers, Prince George was top of the list with 32 bear deaths, followed by Nelson (21), Castlegar: (14) Okanagan Falls, Revelstoke and West Kelowna (12 each) and Nanaimo and Port Alberni (10 each)

Reports can be made to the conservation officer service’s 24-hour RAPP hotline at ­1-877-952-7277 .

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