It’s the time of year when bears emerge from their dens and search for food, often bringing them into the nearest community.
With more people staying home due to COVID-19 and some waste and recycling services impacted as a result of the pandemic response, it’s more important than ever to be vigilant about keeping bear attractants at bay.
Eight communities in B.C. are already setting a strong example of what to do during this extraordinary time. Kamloops, Squamish, Lions Bay, Whistler, Port Alberni, Naramata, New Denver and Coquitlam have had official Bear Smart status for several years through the Bear Smart Community Program. The program is a voluntary, preventative conservation measure that encourages communities, businesses and individuals to work together to reduce conflicts with bears. Several more are actively pursuing the designation.
“If bears do not have access to non-natural food sources, such as garbage, fruit and bird seed within communities, they have no reason to hang around. This results in increased safety for both people and bears,” said Mike Badry, provincial wildlife conflict manager, BC Conservation Officer Service. “Residents could turn this unusual time into something positive for wildlife by taking extra time to secure attractants and educate themselves about Bear Smart practices.”
Nine years ago, Zoe Kirk, a public project works co-ordinator for the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, and the residents of Naramata started to notice an unsettling trend – an average of four to eight bears were destroyed in the village every year due to ongoing conflicts with people.
Located on the east side of Okanagan Lake, the community of 2,400 residents consists of fruit farms, large acreages with livestock, a small village centre and tourists flocking to vacation properties during the summer. The area is also home to a healthy population of bears going to and from the lake and fishing in a creek that runs through the village. Unsecured garbage left outside overnight often lured the bruins into the community.
“The community is nestled in perfect bear habitat, but some folks were being lackadaisical about attractant management, which put neighbourhoods at risk for a conflict with wildlife,” Kirk said. “Many residents were frustrated by this and began petitioning for a change.”
Seeing a need to address the root cause of the conflicts, Naramata signed up for the Bear Smart Community Program in 2012. The program is designed by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, in partnership with the B.C. Conservation Foundation and the Union of B.C. Municipalities, and is based on six criteria that communities must achieve in order to be recognized as “bear smart.”
Following that criteria, Naramata put a bylaw in place to prevent residents from putting their garbage on the curb before 5:30 a.m., changed the day of garbage pickup to better align with the days most people were coming or going from the community and provided bear-proof containers in areas that had the most attractants. Then Kirk went to the local schools, getting kids to take home the message that leaving attractants around their home isn’t cool. Garbage audits were also introduced with the support of B.C. conservation officers to educate residents who were found putting out garbage early.
Within a year, Kirk noticed a big change in Naramata citizens’ behaviour. Suddenly, there was no garbage on the street and call volumes to the Conservation Officer Service went down from 100 per year to about 12. In 2014, Naramata became the sixth community in the province to be awarded official Bear Smart status – a designation Kirk and village residents continue to view with pride.
“People have learned to modify their behaviour and have experienced the difference. In under three years, the community has become almost completely self policing,” Kirk said, who encourages communities struggling with human-wildlife conflicts to sign up for the program. “It takes political will, it takes community will, but when those two come together, you can really make big strides forward.”
Last year, the Conservation Officer Service received more than 20,000 calls related to conflicts with bears. Many of the calls pertained to unsecured attractants. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, the Province is reminding citizens to stay safe, healthy and become bear smart.
For more information about the Bear Smart Community Program and the list of criteria to become Bear Smart, visit: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/plants-animals-ecosystems/wildlife/human-wildlife-conflict/staying-safe-around-wildlife/bears/bear-smart
To learn more about the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, visit: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/natural-resource-stewardship/natural-resource-law-enforcement/conservation-officer-service
For the provincial health officer’s orders, notices and guidance related to COVID-19, visit: www.gov.bc.ca/phoguidance