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The fate of bears in Rossland

Conservation Officers forced to kill at least five habituated bears in Rossland last month
Sue Wrigley: “Bears are not pets, they are wild animals whose sole aim is to survive.” (Jim Bailey)

This is a very difficult article to write. I am devastated. Five bears had to be killed in Rossland about 10 days ago.

The B.C. Conservation Officers didn’t kill these bears – the behaviour and attitudes of the people of Rossland did.

The COs went into a career that protects wildlife and the environment, which means tracking down poachers and polluters and educating the public about wildlife. But they also have a mandate to keep people safe, so when a bear tears the screen off a window and forces its way into a toddler’s bedroom, that’s a safety issue.

These bears had been escalating their behaviour, because people let them, for many months. When bears become this habituated and human-food-conditioned, even hazing and aversive conditioning don’t work. Shooting a perfectly healthy bear is the worst part of a CO’s job.

Along with the two adult bears, the COs took away a sow (trapped incidentally) and two cubs thinking they could relocate them. But when they realized which group of bears this was – a group they had received reports from residents about getting into garbage and structures – they knew that relocation wouldn’t work.

These bears only knew Rossland as home and they would be back.

Relocation rarely works and it can be cruel. It could put them into the territory of another bear, where they will be chased out or they won’t find food.

So, they will make a beeline back to what they view as safety – their home in Rossland. And they can travel long distances, fast. But the cubs would likely be attacked by other bears and would never make it home.

There are far more good news stories with the COs than bad news stories. I volunteer for the Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter and the COs are always helping me with identifying and rescuing orphaned cubs.

The COs came up to Rossland a couple of weeks ago, responding to a report that three cubs had got stuck on a deck. The mom and cubs had gone up there and mom got down from the deck, but the cubs couldn’t figure out how to get down!

The COs helped the cubs off and since this bear family hadn’t been showing any destructive or habituated behaviours, they let these bears go on their merry way. Let’s hope we can keep these bears safe somehow.

I spend most of my waking hours analyzing bear behaviour, tracking reports of bears and talking to people about how to deal with bears in town.

But it is falling on mostly deaf ears.

Many Rosslanders have their minds made up that bears can live in town.

Please listen and wake up – bears are not pets. They are wild animals whose sole aim is to survive.

If you let a bear eat your grass, clover, and fruit, that bear thinks that you have said that it is welcome to eat anything in your territory (because this is the way it works in the bear world). They don’t differentiate between foods.

So, when the good stuff (fruit) runs out, they don’t head to the hills to forage – instead they start following their noses to the closest food.

That means the garbage and green bins left out on garbage day. Then it’s the garbage or green bins in nearby sheds or garages. Or the food in your car or your kitchen or on your deck.

You are not doing the bears any favours by letting them hang around.

They don’t need our food – if a female can’t get enough food in the wild, then she won’t reproduce that year, which is the wonder of bear physiology. You are also not doing them any favours by letting them feel safe bringing up their cubs in your yard.

What happens when those cubs get kicked out by mom when they are 16 months old and she wants to mate again? They only know Rossland as home.

Maybe they will go looking for their own territory but females in particular (who will grow up to have their own cubs) are likely to remain near where they grew up. And these bears have been taught to forage in town, not in the wild. And the cycle starts again for them.

We live in a wildlife corridor and bears will come through town, but we need to maintain our community as a transit route, not a place for them to live. Enjoy them as they walk on by. Talk to them firmly – tell them it’s best for them to keep on walking.

Enjoy them out in the true wilderness, where they should be. There are many other things that need to change in Rossland – such as waste management and bylaws.

The Rossland Bear Smart Task Force is working on that, but change like that takes time and money.

We all need to do our part to keep bears and people safe. That means telling the bears as soon as they come out of hibernation, that this is not home, and they are not allowed to share your territory, not even to eat your grass or clover.

And of course, it means managing all of your attractants (fruit, garbage, compost, dog food, bird-feeders).

If a bear keeps coming back and hanging around, call a CO. Call before the bear escalates its behaviour to other things that will keep it there.

The CO will work with you to determine why the bear is hanging around and/or they will call the WildSafeBC coordinator to visit to figure it out.

That is what the CO and WildSafeBC partnership is there for – to prevent wildlife interactions before they get out of hand. So, please ignore that neighbour or friend who says “never call the CO, they will just come up and shoot the bear if you call them.”

That’s a bunch of baloney. The reason they have that reputation is that Rosslanders don’t call the CO until it’s too late.

And for those of you who will argue that bears have been here for 100+ years – what we are dealing with is now.

Things have changed. Dumps outside town are not the answer – they were awful places for wildlife.

They experienced slow deaths when they ate toxins or plastics. And back then, people were allowed to kill wildlife themselves wantonly.

Rosslanders can live in harmony with bears, but it takes an effort from all of us. Do the right thing and you will be protecting wildlife and our community.

Sue Wrigley is the WildSafe BC community coordinator of the Rossland Bear Smart Task Force; a board member and volunteer animal rescuer, Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter.

READ: Mind your household habits: 5 bears destroyed in Rossland/Trail