Grizzly slaughter highlights human unawareness, CO service stretched thin
Howard Cann first spotted the large grizzly by the side of the highway that runs along Summit Lake between Nakusp and New Denver.
"It was bleeding all over its right side," said Cann, who also said the huge animal fall over a couple of times before it stumbled off. Cann, a hunter, guessed that the animal had been shot, but wasn't about to go chasing after it to find out.
Instead, he called the Conservation Officer Service around 10:30 in the evening on Tuesday, October 23.
The large boar grizzly by Summit Lake was fifth in line for attention from the Conservation Officers, however. The previous day, Blair Thin had been called to deal with a sow and three cubs who had been ripping into ducks, turkeys and chickens in the Brouse Loop area.
"They had hit at least three farms in the area four or five days prior to us hearing about it," said Blair Thin, one of two COs for the area that includes Nakusp. The Conservation Officers are responsible for an area that spreads from roughly Edgewood to Polson Summit toward Grand Forks and out to Salmo, which means their time is often either spent working or travelling for their work.
Unfortunately, the call came after one farm owner had been charged by the sow. The farmer shot and killed the mother bear and one cub. Thin actively trapped the two remaining cubs who are being shipped to a bear rehab centre near Smithers.
This family was not new to the area, and in fact was well-known to COs. The mother and three cubs had already gone through Arrow Park and Burton, killing a half dozen turkeys there and wounding a dog.
Hoping winter would be coming soon enough that the bears would stay in their dens and not make their way back for more fowl fast food, the endangered bear family was placed on the top of Blue Grouse Mountain.
But they weren't quite ready for bed, and had made their way back into the Brouse Loop human population, seeking out farmed fowl.
Once the orphan cubs were captured, Thin transported them to Castlegar where they were picked up by Northern Lights Wildlife Society and transported up north where they will be put through a rehabilitation program. Bear rehab with the society will take place over the winter, and then the cubs will be returned to their area of origin.
According to their website, the Northern Lights Wildlife Society aim to release bears who have not become accustomed to people back into the wild after rehab. Although the program was initially greeted with mixed reactions, the B.C. government did sign an agreement with the shelter for a grizzly rehabilitation pilot project in the spring of 2007. Their rehab for bears includes remote feeding, so contact with humans is next to none, and their enclosure has denning sites that mimic a natural setting. Bears are released during the first berry crop of the year, so there is an abundance of natural food and human attractants (including garbage and chickens) seem less appealing. Next spring will see how successful rehab truly was for the two cubs, who will be fitted with GPS collars and tags to track their progress.
"All we can do is give it a try," said Conservation Officer Sergeant Arnold deBoon. "Our hearts say give it a try." DeBoon noted that there has been an increase in conflict between humans and grizzlies in the area; there have been seven bears relocated this year alone.
"This is their last chance," said Thin about the cubs, who will be released back into their old stomping grounds next spring. Like any CO, he hopes the bears stay in the bush and don't backslide into chicken-snatching behaviour that will get them killed.
"The reason Blair is up there is because we are concerned," said deBoon, emphasizing no one wants the great bears to hurt or get hurt.
Grizzly numbers and activity in the valley bottoms where people choose to live is linked to berry crops. If food sources, particularly huckleberries with their high sugar content, are very generous, sows have increased numbers of cubs. Like everything, berry crops fluctuate, and the many cubs born one season can become a challenge to feed in another, which can lead bears to approach human settlements.
Late Tuesday night, after feeding the two orphaned cubs, Thin received the message from dispatch about the large grizzly boar that Howard Cann had seen by Summit Lake. Because the message had said that the bear was mobile, Thin decided to wait until daylight to try tracking it down.
The next morning when Thin talked with Cann on the phone, he got a different picture of the situation than the one he'd received via dispatch. The hulking grizzly hadn't been very mobile at all, according to Cann, and had been falling down and having a hard time moving.
Searching the surrounding area, Thin quickly found the enormous creature, dead and already being made into a meal by scavengers who took advantage of the bullet's path into the bear.
"It looks like he was shot," said Thin over the phone from the side of the dead bear, "probably within a half a kilometre of the location where Howard Cann saw him. He was probably shot for self-defence; that's my gut instinct."
The grizzly boar, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 600 pounds in weight, was lying in the brush across the highway from the O'Brien's towing satellite dish sign. With no broken ribs or limbs, and able to see the internal bleeding through the ribs stripped bare by scavengers, Thin appraised the death as a shooting.
The first thing Thin (who is relatively new to the area) checked was to see if there were any limited entry hunting tags allowed in the area. If no tags, then the killing was probably an unlawful harvest or an unreported self-defence. Even if the shooting was done in self-defence, which is legitimate, any killing of wildlife must be reported. Thin now had an investigation on his hands.
His inquiry was shorter than most crime scene investigations; the shooter stopped by in his truck and asked Thin what was happening. Soon the whole story was out.
"He was very receptive and apologetic," Thin said about the man who admitted to shooting the grizzly. Because he was co-operative, Thin handed him a $115 fine for not reporting the shooting, rather than putting it through the courts. Judges can calculate the life of a grizzly at a much higher cost and can hand out larger fines, said Blair who said the economic value of the bear alone was in the order of $25,000.
The value of a grizzly is more than just economic, stressed the CO, who said people don't often realize the efforts gone through to protect both bears and people. But when the chips are down, Thin's mandate is to protect people.
Much of that protecting could be done, he pointed out, by residents taking preventive measures. Putting up electric fencing around bear attractants such as garbage or livestock is a good deterrent, with few animals willing to go through the shocking barrier.
"The effort has to be made," said Blair, who said people should call the Conservation Service if they need advice about problem wildlife. Blair understands that people take it upon themselves because they feel they're not getting service, and he said he will take care of problem bears, but there are many steps between having chickens and shooting a bear.
The Bear Aware program has been actively embraced in New Denver, said Thin, where last year neglected fruit trees had attracted bears again and again, which then had to be shot for the safety of residents.
When asked what should people do if they have a hard time getting a hold of busy COs, Thin said they are welcome to complain to the Ministry or their MLA.
Arrow Lakes area lacks bear awareness program
Nakusp mayor Karen Hamling told the Arrow Lakes News that there is no Bear Aware program in the village, due to a lack of interest and resources.
"I looked into it a few years ago and it needs someone to spearhead it as well as funding," she said.
When the chicken bylaw – a bylaw to allow people within the village to keep chickens – is examined in the future, bear considerations will be taken into account.
"I am concerned about the bear issue and chickens. I am not sure that a bear aware program is going to keep bears from coming into a community if there are chickens present. We need to have more info on that," the mayor commented.
For now, the chicken bylaw remains a low priority and has not reached the council table yet.
Nakusp is not the only community in the area that does not have a Bear Aware program, despite the increase in human-bear interactions.
"To my knowledge there isn't a Bear Aware program in Area K," said Area K Director Paul Peterson, who said it would take overcoming indifference and apathy. There have been a number of bear incidents in recent years, but so far no program has been instigated.
Anyone who does have a problem with bears or other wildlife in the area are encouraged to call 1-877-952-7277 and report them.