There is no doubt it has been a stressful year for bears and residents in the Bella Coola Valley.
Grizzly bears have been sighted at all times of the day and in all sorts of residential areas including porches, storefronts, and right downtown.
The most recent incident featured local resident Lawrence Michalchuk’s intense encounter with a charging sow on his property. It was filmed and posted to YouTube where it has since been viewed almost 500,000 times, capturing the attention of international media.
Michalchuk has since faced both criticism and praise for his actions leading up to the conflict. The Conservation Officer Service would not comment on the incident but did confirm there is an investigation.
All of this activity has had many people speculating if bears are becoming more habituated to humans.
A study done in Yellowstone National Park in 2015 found that bears in the Park were extremely habituated to human presence. However, there were no bear-inflicted injuries to humans and bear mortality remained very low despite over 1,000 “bear jams” that occurred. The study attributed this to careful, targeted, face-to-face management of visitors and bears by well-trained staff within these zones of close bear-human proximity.
“A bear that is habituated to people isn’t necessarily bad or good,” said Kerry Gunther, Bear Management Biologist for Yellowstone National Park. “Managing habituated bears works well in a park setting, but it is nearly impossible to manage on private land as it’s very difficult to keep it clean of attractants and manage people.”
The commercial bear viewing in Tweedsmuir Park is similar to Yellowstone in that it is heavily regulated. Bears in the Park may become habituated to human presence, but there is no association with food during bear viewing in sanctioned areas/tours.
“Habituation without food conditioning is not an issue,” said Gunther. “However, once they associate food with humans that becomes a big problem.”
Tweedsmuir Park is located 50 kilometres from Bella Coola, and BC Parks and the Nuxalk Nation are planning to embark on a study that will investigate the impacts of bear viewing on bear behaviour, especially in relation to downstream communities.
“BC Parks and the Nuxalk Nation are starting a project in Tweedsmuir Park in partnership with Dr. Chris Darimont and his Ph.D. student Kate Field to investigate the impacts of bear viewing on bears. One of the questions we are hoping to answer with that project is whether or not the bears that are being viewed in the Park are involved in human-bear conflict issues in the communities downstream,” said Lori Homstol, Conservation Specialist with BC Parks.
“Habituation is generally thought to be quite site-specific, and bear-viewing, as well as all the other human activities that have long been occurring in the Park are unlikely to have anywhere near the impact in communities down Valley that unsecured attractants and more localized bear viewing would have. BC Parks wants to ensure that this is indeed the case and have protocols in the Atnarko Bear Monitoring project to confirm this.”
Gunther’s Yellowstone study has produced evidence that also suggests habituation is site-specific. For example, a bear that displays highly habituated behaviour along park roads may be warier or intolerant of people in backcountry areas where it does not expect to encounter them.
For many residents, much of the concern has centred around the significant spike in bear viewing occurring in close proximity to residential areas, especially this summer. This can result in bears becoming habituated to humans in those settings and create distress for homeowners further down the road.
Nookliklonnic, Thorsen, and Saloopmt were frequently targeted by large numbers of people viewing bears, which created a multitude of problems including traffic jams, trespassing, and a general unsafe atmosphere.
Homstol agrees that this is a problem.
“Consistency is one of the most important aspects of reducing human-bear conflict. If we don’t want bears comfortable around human developments, we should not be encouraging bear viewing in residential areas,” she explained. “The other problem with bear viewing in residential areas is that it can pressure some less human-tolerant bears away from the streams when people are there and onto nearby properties where the residents are trying to discourage bears from spending time – so the bear viewing could be creating a human-bear conflict situation sometimes that may not otherwise occur.”
Fraser Koroluk of Kynoch Adventures has been guiding bear viewing river trips for 15 years and was also the Bella Coola WildSafe Coordinator for four years. He said that bear viewing has been occurring in the Park for decades and the Belarko Bear Viewing Platform is now almost a decade old as well, leading him to believe that the behaviour residents are encountering now is not directly related to the bear viewing in the Park.
Koroluk also noted that bears in the Park often exhibit different behaviour than bears he’s encountered in the lower Valley, saying that he has had more difficulty discouraging bears to leave his property in Hagensborg while bears in the Park are often quick to scatter if pressured to do so.
“We have never operated a tour outside the Park and I never send guests to unsanctioned areas,” said Koroluk. “I feel that the number of people watching bears in uncontrolled areas, whether they are tourists or locals, are contributing more to bear habituation and/or food conditioning than is controlled viewing in designated areas in Tweedsmuir Park.”
The BC Conservation Officer Service says it’s important that people try to drive bears away from their property to discourage habituation and food conditioning and to report its behaviour to the RAPP Line.
Conservation Specialist Lori Homstol says bear viewing near residential areas should be heavily discouraged to avoid habituation in these areas
Bella Coola Valley Tourism, which has almost 60 local members, says it supports people travelling to Bella Coola to view bears, but strongly opposes it being done in unsanctioned areas. At present, however, there is little the organization can do to stop it.
“BCVT strongly discourages visitors from viewing bears outside designated areas, but given human nature, we realize that cannot always be easily enforced,” said Tom Hermance, President of BCVT. “BCVT stresses an understanding and compliance with all British Columbia law and regards ‘best practices,’ such as those outlined by BC Parks and the Commercial Bear Viewing Association of BC as an essential template for responsible, respectful human behaviour.”
BCVT said there is interest in a bear-viewing platform somewhere in the lower Valley but insists it would have to be intensively managed.
Hana Anderson with the BC Conservation Officer Service says that in responding to calls regarding lower Valley bear viewing, there is no legislation that deals directly with wildlife viewing.
“In BC right now, there is no legislation that sets a distance on wildlife viewing,” said Anderson. “In attending calls where people are bear viewing on the roads I am dealing with legislation around highway safety, public safety, and trespassing.”
Local legislation could come from the Central Coast Regional District in the form of a bylaw, but the CCRD has indicated in past documents that it believes public safety is within the mandate of the province. Additional questions arise around legality, interpretation, enforcement and cost.
“To my knowledge, the CCRD has never considered a bylaw of this nature. In order for the CCRD board to consider this a determination would need to be made regarding whether or not a regional district has the legal authority to enact a public safety bylaw that applies to and has jurisdiction over provincial roads and/or rivers and streams,” said CCRD Chair Alison Sayers. “CCRD has no bylaw enforcement officer, which would mean perhaps creating a high-profile and possibly controversial bear viewing bylaw that cannot be enforced. This has the potential to cause significant public frustration.”
Sayers also said another approach would be for the CCRD board to “continue its advocacy work with the provincial government.”
There has also been heavy speculation that the local grizzly bear population is increasing. According to numbers calculated by the province, the Bella Coola Valley is home to several dozen grizzly bears.
“The province believes that the Bella Coola Valley is home to approximately 60 grizzly bears. However, it’s important to note that when locals see more bears than normal, this is related to the distribution of food that year, and not necessarily a change in overall number of bears,” said Jeremy Uppenborn, Senior Public Affairs and Media Relations Officer with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. “When habitat conditions remain stable, grizzly bear populations change very little in a year or even five years.”
Determining actual numbers of grizzly bears is a tricky business. For years the province has relied on its method of habitat modelling to estimate grizzly bear population units, and the last time they performed their assessments for the Tweedsmuir Grizzly Bear Population Unit (GBPU) was in 2012.
Several independent scientists have questioned this method, saying that it’s not the best predictor of actual populations, whether they be predators or prey.
“For the Tweedsmuir GBPU, which covers the Valley, the province uses a combination of “expert opinion” and a model to estimate population sizes,” said Kyle Artelle, a biologist working on the Central Coast whose main focus is grizzly bear management. “This model tries to predict how many bears there are as a map-based exercise and is not based on on-the-ground monitoring of the population itself.”
Part of Artelle’s work involves collaboration with the Central Coast First Nations on bear research, which is a partnership with the Nations (including the Nuxalk), the University of Victoria, and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
The Nuxalk Bear Study is based on similar projects ongoing on the Central Coast, and Artelle characterizes it as a “boots on the ground” approach that involves physical collection of hair samples. These samples provide a wealth of data on grizzly bear movements and overall health indicators.
Nuxalk Fisheries and Wildlife Coordinator Jason Moody and his team have been working on the Nuxalk Bear Study since 2014. The study has 100 sites set up all over the Bella Coola Valley and out into the inlets where data collection takes place, but they have yet to release their population estimates.
“Based on observations and work from the Bear Safety Project so far, I would conclude that the province’s numbers are too high,” said Moody. “I can say that, in general, the numbers from the Ministry were approximately five times higher for the number of spring grizzly bears and probably two times higher for fall grizzly bears.”
While the local bear population has been ravaging mountain ash trees, grizzly bears’ main diet is salmon, and this is where they collect the bulk of their nutrients. Right now, bears are in their “hyperphagic” phase, which means they are extremely focused on putting on calories for winter.
“In general, salmon (whichever species is present in a given place) are disproportionately important for bears, especially when they’re hyperphagic,” said Artelle. “Although bears are omnivorous, not all foods are equal, so a calorie-rich food like salmon is really hard to replace if it suddenly goes missing.”
The Chum returns were good this summer, but the subsequent runs of Pink and Coho have not been healthy so far. Pink salmon returns in 2017 were 1.57 million but local DFO staff are expecting a poorer count for 2018.
“Pink salmon are a two-year cycle salmon, so this year’s return is from the 2016 brood of approximately 616,000,” said Brad Koroluk, DFO Central Coast Resource Manager. “We have not calculated the final 2018 escapement yet but the pink return to Bella Coola River is definitely lower than the brood year, and it will likely be classed as poor.”
Returns were also very poor this year on the outer coast, with locals in Bella Bella reporting very low water levels in the rivers and creeks and few returning spawners. At present much of the province is experiencing drought conditions, which is extremely hard on fish.
There is no commercial fishery for Coho, but there is a recreational fishery and Nuxalk people take part in food fishing. Moody confirmed that Nuxalk fishers are recording a very poor return of Coho so far. He was also concerned about the number of recreational fishers that flocked to the Central Coast this year, as closures elsewhere left people fewer choices.
“All you had to do was take a drive to the wharf to witness the number of people who came here to fish Coho this season,” said Moody. “This puts an immense amount of pressure on the returning Coho spawners.”
There was also a bumper crop of fruit in the Valley this summer, which has seen many homeowners struggling to keep up with the harvest and abandoned or under-utilized trees can be real problem.
Anderson said that most human-wildlife conflicts have a component of human attractants, and the message from the COS is that securing attractants is the first step in reducing these conflicts. Several resources such as electric fencing, which has proven to be a very effective deterrent, and volunteer gleaners are available locally.
“Attractants are an issue in every town in B.C. that is surrounded by wilderness,” said Anderson. “The priority of the province is to help maintain public safety, but property owners play a role in this. If people need help protecting their property there is help from the COS, WildSafe, the gleaning program and the Nuxalk Bear Safety Group.”
Anderson said if a person feels their life or property is threatened by an animal they can do what they feel is necessary. However, there is no authorization granted under the Wildlife Act to kill an animal, only to report it.
In a nutshell, homeowners may or may not be found responsible for causing for the death or injury of an animal based on how the situation unfolded.
“These situations are governed by case law,” said Anderson “It’s very nuanced and is determined on a case by case basis.”
Anderson said that to date in the Valley three grizzly bears have been destroyed by the COS: two due to injuries and one due to food conditioning. One black bear was also destroyed due to food conditioning and health issues. A total of five grizzly bears were tagged and relocated in short-distance relocation.
Anderson explained that short-distance relocation is preferred over translocation, as bears located out of their home watershed have a much lower chance of survival.
“We want to give these bears a chance to stay out of the area,” she explained. “We tag them so that if they do come back we are aware of it.”
Moody said that support for the Nuxalk Bear Safety Project is strong and he is hoping to expand next year to include more members and equipment. This season has seen his members working around the clock on several occasions performing duties such as providing rides for community members, patrolling hot spots, helping residents clean up their attractants and setting up electric fencing.
Artelle said that studies he has participated in found a direct correlation between low salmon years and human/bear conflicts.
“We looked across the province at 35 years of grizzly bear-human conflict across the province and found that, as expected, there was a strong pattern of increased conflict in years when salmon went down,” said Artelle. “If a really dependable, important food source suddenly goes missing, bears get desperate. Thankfully it’s a temporary pattern that goes away when natural foods come back. We also found that killing a bunch of bears had absolutely no measurable impact on subsequent conflict rates, it seems to really be driven by natural food availability – especially salmon on the coast.”
Moody said that understanding these patterns is an important feature of his team’s work, and pre-planning could help the community avoid future conflicts.
“If we know it could be a poor salmon year we can anticipate these conflicts, then we can be more prepared as a community to deal with it,” said Moody. “At present, we have plans for a brushing and cleaning project, mapping high hazard zones, and more help for homeowners in dealing with attractants and garbage.”
Clyde Tallio of the Nuxalk Indigenous Law Project said that Nuxalk peoples’ relationship with bears goes back millennia and that all Valley residents have an important role to play in keeping bears and people safe.
“The whole community, from townsite to up Valley, needs to come together and combine our collective knowledge, stories and ideologies,” said Tallio. “Traditional knowledge tells us we weren’t taught to be afraid of bears, so we need to reassess our values and what our young people will inherit and come up with a solution that will help us to return to coexisting with our environment.”