Popping Grizzlies

When British Columbia Conservation Officer Andrew Anaka learned that a Bella Coola Valley resident was threatening to “pop” a grizzly bear mother and her three cubs for stealing salmon off his deck, Anaka advised the man to instead remove his salmon. He said the family of bears should only be shot if they were an imminent threat. The resident did not remove the salmon and later shot all four bears.

A disturbing number of grizzlies are killed in the Bella Coola Valley on Canada’s Pacific coast because of similar, avoidable human behaviour. “Problem Wildlife Occurrence” records from the Conservation Officer Service show that residents are not managing food, garbage, and other items that attract grizzlies. While managing interaction with large carnivores is a province-wide issue that needs to be addressed throughout BC, the Bella Coola Valley has to be considered ground zero when it comes to chronic human-bear conflicts on the coast.

Unintentionally feeding these animals leads to safety issues — and it is the grizzlies that wind up paying the price.

Current legislation is not helping. While Section 88.1 of the BC Wildlife Act is aimed at preventing these types of deaths, it is virtually unenforceable.

Section 88.1 makes it an offence to leave out food, food waste, compost or other waste or garbage that could attract dangerous wildlife. However, its enforcement steps are too cumbersome. Section 88.1 requires that Conservation Officers:

1. Issue a warning to remove the bear attractants within a certain amount of time, 2. monitor the property to ensure compliance, and 3. begin the warning process anew if the resident ceases to manage bear attractants in the future.

Cuts to provincial environmental funding seriously inhibit the ability to follow these legislative steps. Funding limitations make it wholly impractical for conservation officers, who patrol vast amounts of land, to essentially babysit any offender they encounter. Further, the BC government seems to have scant interest in increasing conservation enforcement capability in the Bella Coola Valley. For instance, the Central Coast Regional District has been urging the province, without success, to post a conservation officer in the Bella Coola Valley because of persistent human-bear conflicts. Met with incredulousness by local government, the facile response from the BC Ministry of Environment has been to claim that it would be near impossible to recruit anyone to take a posting in the Bella Coola Valley because it is “too remote” and “lacks amenities.”

Without significant increases in conservation resources, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre believe we must look to the law for solutions. The warning system under Section 88.1 should be replaced with a system of immediate penalties for residents who carelessly leave out attractants for grizzlies. Penalties should increase each time for repeat offenders.

By replacing warnings with penalties, the Wildlife Act will become more effective. Conservation officers can charge negligent residents immediately, before grizzly bears develop problem behaviour, and without cumbersome follow up requirements.

Recently, a resident in the Bella Coola Valley, who was “not into” removing the fallen apples from his trees, killed a grizzly for feeding on the ripened fruit. If the penalty system had been in place, this and other similar grizzly deaths may have been prevented. In addition, this past week the Vancouver Sun reported on a troubling 2009 killing spree, which is just now coming to light, of a mother grizzly and her cubs by yet another resident who had been criticized by provincial conservation officers for refusing to put up an electric fence to protect his chickens.

Grizzly bears start off the competition for survival with an inherent disadvantage by virtue of their significant reproductive limitations; in fact, they are the second slowest reproducing mammal on the continent. In addition, BC’s grizzlies are under a suite of external pressures, including habitat loss, declining salmon stocks, trophy hunting, poaching, persistent organic pollution contamination and the looming threat of climate change. To subject these bears to further persecution as a result of easily remedied flaws in the Wildlife Act should give British Columbians reason for pause. Many so-called “control kills” of grizzlies could possibly be avoided or at least reduced if provincial lawmakers were willing to simply take action and fix the aforementioned deficiencies in the Wildlife Act.

As apex predators, grizzly bears play an important ecological role by imposing “top down regulation” of ecosystems. Their iconic presence is a critical part of the cultural DNA of our province. There is no denying that grizzlies help to make “Super, Natural British Columbia” the unique place that it is, providing BC a cachet very few jurisdictions in the world can still boast. As a result, their power and beauty draw a hefty amount of tourist dollars into BC on an annual basis. Don’t we owe these magnificent large carnivores more respect than to allow stand the flaccid provisions in the legislation that is ostensibly designed to protect them?

It is time to amend the Wildlife Act to penalize the negligent management of bear attractants by property owners and residents living in grizzly country. It is time to save BC’s grizzly bears from these needless kinds of deaths.

Chris Genovali is executive director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Elizabeth Farries is an Environmental Law Centre student at the University of Victoria.