Human-bear conflicts can be avoided if municipalities and residents were more bear aware

Bears are out; Okanagan conservation officer says we need to be better to avoid conflict

With another bear season upon us, Kelowna conservation officer calls on Central Okanagan municipalities, residents to do more

Conservation officer Terry Myroniuk has dealt with many problem bears over his nearly 20-years as a conservation officer and in some pretty strange places as well.

There was the time, while working in the Vancouver area, he had to fire off a dart to tranquilize a bear at the Metrotown Mall in Burnaby or the time there was a bear to deal with at the PNE in the heart of Vancouver.

Now working in the Central Okanagan, Myroniuk says those cases are good examples of how far a bear will go into an urban setting, especially if it has become habituated to finding and eating garbage, left unattended by the public.

“Where we do deal with human-bear conflicts or bears that are habituated or showing aggression, nine times out of 10 it has been the direct result of a failure of the community to keep garbage away from bears,” said Myroniuk. “To say we are getting better isn’t quite good enough because we are still having problems. It only takes one or two people that are opening up a buffet by not keeping their garbage secure.”

Depending on where you live in the Central Okanagan, bears may be front of mind and something you deal with on a regular basis (Peachland) or you may think there is no chance of a human-bear conflict (downtown Kelowna). But Myroniuk says the Central Okanagan is in the heart of bear country and its orchards and fruit trees are very attractive for bears.

“We’ve created better bear habitat (in the Central Okananan) in a lot of ways by our development and with our orchards. We’re right smack dab in the middle of bear country and in some ways we are baiting them to our community with all these orchards and vineyards and lush vegetation and garbage,” he said. “We are providing them a year round food source if we are not dealing with our garbage properly. Quite often we are dealing with bears in January that should have long since been sleeping but if they have that year round food source they don’t go into hibernation.”

So far this year there have been reports of bears in West Kelowna, East Kelowna, Peachland, Joe Rich and Lake Country. On average bears have started to appear this year a few weeks earlier than usual.

And Myroniuk says bear and human conflicts are going to continue until the public decides it’s enough of an issue to push local governments to do more.

“I think the public needs to decide if this is an important issue to them,” he said. “Then it works its way up to local government to realize what the community wants. Some municipalities in the province have strict bylaws about how people store their garbage. We’re just not there yet in the Kelowna area.”

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For the past 16 years a non profit group that was first called Bear Aware has been working with local governments around the province, providing education, toolkits and offering partial funding to have a bear aware coordinator working for a municipality during bear season.

Now known as Wildsafe BC, the program received application from 32 communities around B.C. this year and was able to fund 23 of those.

“When a community is funded under our program, we do the hiring and the co-ordinator is our employee,” said Wildsafe BC provincial co-ordinator Frank Ritcey. “They have a training session about reducing human bear conflict. We teach them the biology of the key conflict species we deal with. We provide a toolkit with brochures and printed materials like door hangers. They go back into the community and get the message out to people about managing the attractants and keeping your garbage in until collection day.”

In the Central Okanagan, only Peachland applied to be part of the program this year. Neither Kelowna, West Kelowna, Lake Country nor the Regional District of Central Okanagan made application for the program although other communities in the general area did.

The City of Vernon received partial funding while the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen will also have a bear aware coordinator to work with the communities in that area.

Despite pledging $4,000 to go towards the program, Peachland was turned down and offered a partial program but declined to take part and instead will opt to apply for the full coordinator position again next year.

“Unfortunately we aren’t able to fund all of the positions,” said Ritcey. “That’s the reality of life. We don’t have enough money to fund everyone.”

Wildsafe BC is almost entirely funded through the B.C. government. Last year it had a $275,000 budget and a funding announcement for the group is expected to come down again soon.

While the group wasn’t able to fund all of the requests it received this year, Ritcey says the only way to properly deal with human-animal conflicts is to have all communities on board.

“Our goal is to see every community in the province serviced by Wildsafe BC,” he said. “It’s really important that everyone is on the same page. The bears and the deer, they haven’t figured out where the municipal boundaries are. We will make representations again to the regional districts about getting them to join the program and to the government to increase our funding.”

When Bear Aware started in 1999, Ritcey says provincial stats showed close to 1,000 bears a year were being destroyed while a typical year in the recent history shows that number closer to 500 animals being destroyed.

“A big part of that is that people are starting to get the message about managing their attractants. By the time we get the whole province on board that number will drop even further,” said Ritcey.

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In 2009, when the Central Okanagan Regional District introduced its automated garbage pickup program, delivering standard bins to its customers and allowing trucks the ability to pick-up without getting out of their vehicle, there was an option available to the public for a bin that locked.

That would allow residents who lived in areas with a higher than normal chance of a bear encounter to lock the bin until it was put out on delivery day, when the lock would be released by the resident, allowing for regular pick-up.

Problem was, the public wasn’t interested and the up-take on the lockable bins was close to zero.

“Initially when we rolled out the carts there was a lot of interest in containers that locked for residents that had historic bear issues,” said Peter Rotheisler, the manager of environmental services for CORD. “We did some research and made some options available but no one pursued it and the businesses that offered (the locking mechanism) kind of faded away.”

Residents would have had to pay more but locking your garbage or storing it in a separate building that locks is the number one way to avoid bear-human conflicts.

In the mid 2000s CORD did have a Bear Aware program but it was eliminated and currently CORD doesn’t have a bear-focussed program other than to send out press releases and deal with issues on case by case basis if there is a complaint.

“There hasn’t been a lot of interest at the political level to re-institute the (bear aware) program,” said Rotheisler. “There isn’t an overwhelming outcry (from the public or politicians).”

According to conservation officer Terry Myroniuk, getting municipalities on board will start at the grassroots level. Until the public puts pressure on its locally elected officials to deal with bear and human conflicts, nothing will change, he said.

At this point the 17 year veteran of the conservation officer service says the Central Okanagan is lagging behind other jurisdictions in the interior.

“Kamloops has adopted Bear Smart status by making core changes to the way garbage is sorted and picked up to minimize the impacts,” he said. “It’s time for communities to step up. We’re light years behind some of the other communities that have staff going out to do prevention and education becoming more bear aware and avoiding conflicts.

“The worst part of my job is having to put down a bear. It’s awful. I don’t even know how to describe it. But what makes it even harder is when you look at what has occurred to bring the bear to that point, it’s always, always, always people related. The problem is not the bear it’s the people. It’s frustrating that there are still people that don’t get it.”

For more bear information: www.wildsafebc.com. To report a problem with wildlife call 1-877-952-7277.