Bear-Human Conflicts in British Columbia
A discussion of some issues and possible solutions to these conflicts.


British Columbia is rich in wildlife populations, both in terms of their numbers and their distribution throughout diverse and productive habitats. Black and grizzly bears are maintaining strong populations in B.C., with stable or increasing numbers of grizzlies in all regions except in the Kamloops - Williams Lake areas, where they appear to be declining in numbers (Warkentin, 1989).

[Photo] Substantial bear populations, especially black bears, exist in virtually every area used by outdoor recreationalists in B.C. Bears also adapt extremely well to human settlements, so black bear/human contact and conflict may occur near all of the communities and cities in the province. Encounters with bears can (rarely) lead to human injury or death, or property damage, and bears that inflict these damages to people are often destroyed.

Improper handling of human food and garbage is the main factor contributing to these bear/human conflicts in B.C. (Anon. 1996). Bears quickly learn to associate people with food and return to landfills, dumpsters or backyards to familiar, unnatural food sources (Anon. 1996). This altering of bear behaviour, known as food conditioning, combined with a loss of fear of humans through repeated near contact, known as habituation, results in a potentially dangerous situation. I will examine bear/human conflicts and the potential for public education and planning to lessen these conflicts.


Black and Grizzly Bears in B.C
[Photo] Forbes (1990), a Kootenay wildlife biologist with the Ministry of Environment, Lands, Parks (MOELP), estimates that 112,000 black bears (+/- 25%) inhabit the province.Their numbers seem to be stable or increasing in the province ( in spite of the concern raised by the public for bear conservation because of trade in bear parts - galls, paws). Black bears are highly adaptable to changes in their habitat, have a wide variety of food sources, and will forage on agricultural products such as corn, grains, fruit and vegetables (Forbes, 1990). This adaptability to a wide range of habitats in B.C. has allowed black bears to populate every region of the province.

Grizzly bears, however, number only 10,000 to 13,000 in the province (Anon.b, 1995). Warkentin (1989) gives a minimum estimate of 12,550 grizzlies in B.C. A report entitled, " The Conservation of Grizzly Bears in British Columbia " (Anon.a, 1995), indicates that grizzly bear reproductive capability is low, but the females invest considerable energy in nurturing and protecting their cubs. This factor is significant for these reasons:

  1. Grizzly bear losses, particularly loss of adult females, is a serious management concern in B.C. (Herrero, 1985).
  2. Because adult females aggressively defend their young, close contact by humans must be avoided.

Alteration of Bear Behaviour by Humans
Fraser Mackenzie, Environment Protection, MOELP, Smithers wrote a draft discussion paper entitled 'Reducing bear-human conflicts-- solutions through better management of non-natural foods'. Mackenzie acknowledges that predatory behaviour of bears, particularly black bears, towards humans does (rarely) cause conflict (Mackenzie, 1996).

However, the main source of bear-human conflict in B.C. begins with the attraction of bears to non-natural foods in urban and rural settings. This phenomenon involves four distinct, inter-related issues: attraction of bears to human foods; habituation of bears to humans; conditioning of bears to human food; and the effects of these three on bears and people (Mackenzie, 1996). Bears are omnivorous, so they are attracted to a wide variety of foods, they have a keen sense of smell, are highly curious, and are highly motivated to gain weight before hibernation in the fall (Mackenzie, 1996).

[Photo] Although bears are naturally wary of people (Herrero, 1985), their sense of smell and curiousity bring them close to humans. If they are not repelled by a negative stimulus, and especially if rewarded by food, both habituation and food conditioning will occur (Mackenzie, 1996). Forbes and Tompa (1989, in: Mackenzie, 1996) suggest when bears eat human refuse on a continuous basis for a one week period, they are considered to be food conditioned. Tompa (1987, in: Mackenzie, 1996), also suggests that bears may turn to garbage as a food source, in desperation, when normal food sources such as salmon and berry crops fail.

Once food conditioning is established it is very difficult to reverse. Rutherglen and Herbison (1977, in: Mackenzie, 1996) noted that black bears will travel very long distances over extremely rough terrain, to return to their chosen garbage dump sites. In 1995, a male grizzly bear was live-trapped, and relocated in north-western Alberta. The bear, which had been ear-tagged, travelled approximately 600 kilometres west, through the Rockies and several other mountain ranges, and was recorded near Dease Lake, B.C. in the fall of 1995. The bear had been taken lawfully by a guided hunter (Smith, personal comm., 1996). These tendencies to travel long distances are a factor that conservation officers must consider when deciding to relocate a 'problem bear', or to destroy the animal. Other factors include availability of unused bear habitat, and the health of the bear.

Bears are also attracted to backyards and residential areas, in search of household garbage, composts, fruits and vegetables. Residents in bear country are advised to observe these rules to avoid attracting bears (Anon., 1996):

In terms of education and public awareness, it is suggested the public must learn to prevent situations whereby bears can gain access to these unnatural foods. They must also appreciate the consequences of failing to do this, both for the bears and the people who eventually come in contact with them (Anon., 1996). Electric fencing at garbage landfill sites, although expensive, must be supported by the public (Anon., 1996).

The Price Paid by the Bears
As a result of bear/human conflicts, hundreds of bears are killed each year by conservation officers and occasionally, by others. Conservation Officer Service statistics reflect the bear-human conflicts and action taken in the last four years in B.C. (Anon., 1996).

These statistics indicate that black bears create considerably more 'problem wildlife' complaints than do grizzlies. They also show that a higher percentage of problem grizzlies are relocated as compared to problem black bears. While this may be understandable, considering the smaller numbers of grizzlies in B.C., the destruction of any bears because of human mismanagement, is not desirable.

Translocation of Bears in Response to Bear/Human Conflicts
While the public much prefers the option of relocating a bear rather than having to destroy it, there are a number of factors that weigh against translocation. Cost is a factor, as a bear moved by helicopter may cost up to $1800 (Anon.a, 1996). If a bear is conditioned and/or habituated, the 'problem bear' is simply moved to someone else's backyard. In (Anon.a, 1996), it is further suggested that rates of return of translocated bears (or 'homing'), may be as high as 60 to 70%, with these factors affecting the bear's behaviour:

Bear Attacks on Humans in B.C
Bear attack statistics were taken from the draft discussion paper, "Human-Bear Conflict in British Columbia" (Anon.,1996).

In the sixteen-year period from 1978 to 1994, eleven people were killed and almost 100 people injured by bears in B.C. While the risk of being killed or injured is very low, public safety is a critical issue in B.C. (Anon., 1996). These statistics are current to the end of 1994. However, in 1995 and in 1996 to date, the incidence of bear attacks on humans in B.C. has taken a marked increase (Daloise, pers. comm., 1996). Here is a description of several recent attacks, as documented by the B.C. Conservation Officer Service:

November 25, 1995 - a sow grizzly with two cubs went on a rampage at Banff, knocking down tents and causing injuries, some serious, to 6 people. This appears to be the same bear relocated from Revelstoke, B.C., to Lake Louise in 1994. The grizzly was conditioned to a poorly managed garbage dump in Revelstoke.

In September, 1995, two men were attacked at their float plane on the shore of McDougal Lake, Wells Gray park, by a sow grizzly and sub-adult cub. The men escaped injury, but the plane was heavily damaged.

October 11, 1995 - two hunters were returning to recover more meat from an elk they had harvested, when attacked and killed by a sow grizzly with two18 month-old cubs.

October 20, 1995 - A hunter, Dale Graham, was crossing a beaver dam while hunting. Although carrying a rifle, he was knocked down, seriously injured, but managed to respond by stabbing the bear repeatedly in the head and neck with a small knife. Luckily, he survived the attack, killing the bear.

There are many more examples of bear attacks, some in 1996, resulting in death or serious injury to humans. I will not list them here, but will say that in some cases, there is no readily apparent human error involved in the circumstances of these attacks, except that bear habituation and food conditioning are often factors. On July 1, 1996, however, a tourist from Holland followed a black bear into the bush for some distance, near Jasper. The bear finally had enough, and turned to chase the camera-toting tourist, who made it to the car door, only to sustain a severe bite to the buttocks. Poor judgement and habituation to humans were factors here.

[Photo] The end result of many bear/human conflicts is the destruction of the bear (Mackenzie, 1996). Groups such as Bear Watch and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, are strong advocates for bear conservation, and press for reduced killing of bears. This is a logical position to take, but as I will indicate later in this paper, the public must improve the way it interacts with bears, especially in the area of providing artificial food sources. A strong public education program, and more inter-agency cooperation in the planning process should help reduce this problem. Before I go on to discuss these issues, I would like to relate the circumstances of a bear attack that I personally investigated. This situation caused considerable reflection on my part, about the value of human life, relating to bear attacks.

On July 18, 1980, three boys were fishing along a small brushy trout stream, within 100 metres of their parents home. The location was a small logging community called Leo Creek, beside Takla Lake, approximately 200 kilometres north-west of Vanderhoof, B.C. As the boys came round a corner, they encountered a medium-sized black bear standing in the shallow water. The bear was likely feeding on berries along the stream. The boys were very close to the bear, so, unfortunately, they dropped their fishing gear and ran. Two boys went up the bank to the right, losing sight of the third boy, who was 12 years old. The bear caught him, and dragged him away from the others. The boy called for help, then was silent. He had been killed by the bear. As I later followed the trail taken by the bear, I came across the boy's blood-soaked cut-off jeans. At that point, I think my perspective about the value of a bear's life, compared to that of a human, was crystallized in my mind. I would continue to practice conservation and to value bears, but with a great deal of concern about people, especially children, in bear country, thereafter.

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