Biologists, animal experts say solution to Bella Coola’s grizzly bear phenomenon lies with humans

This is the third instalment in a three-part series focusing on the Bella Coola Valley’s grizzly bear population, and the issues surrounding it.

Summer tourist season may be over in the Bella Coola Valley, but debate and dialogue surrounding one of the region’s most majestic, yet divisive, residents continues — long after any foreign visitors have left.

“There’s concern from citizens that there’s more activity from grizzly bears during the day than there has been for a while,” Steven Hodgson with the Conservation Officer Service told Global News.

“One thing we need to do as a community is really get together, and get behind a human-wildlife conflict prevention plan, that we can collaboratively develop in the community — to ensure the safety of residents and bears in the coming future.”

That sentiment is being echoed by experts, too. Biologists and animal behaviour specialists, who have formed unique bonds with the region’s grizzly bears through their years of working experience on the ground, are among those challenging the narrative of residents, who have raised concerns about a relatively recent increase in the bears’ daytime behaviour.

“The bears have a cellular connection with this place. When you do see a grizzly walking through these areas, it just feels like they truly belong. And they do. They know they do,” explained Ellie Lamb, a bear behaviour educator who’s worked as a tour guide in the region for nearly two decades.

“The biggest problem for these animals is our fear. I think people, for safety purposes, need to understand these animals. For the safety of not just them, but I’m saying for the safety of the bears.”

Lamb is among other experts in the region who say the real issue behind a spike in the bears’ daytime behaviour — and increasingly closer to residential areas in the lower Bella Coola Valley — is largely a human-caused one. An increasing number of attractants, like unpicked fruit trees, food sources, and a lack of electric fencing on some properties, is exacerbating the problem.

Lamb said a more comprehensive understanding of the animals is also needed by the very humans working to co-exist with the bears, in order to mitigate conflict.

“It’s really going to depend on two things: one of them is understanding bear behaviour. And that’s communication, body language — basically, what they’re saying. When they stand up, they’re not looking for a feast. They’re looking to pick up a scent. And the other is attractants. Attractants are a big deal. Zero food? Zero bears. Some food? Some bears. Lots of food? Lots of bears.”

Lamb said her clients regularly witness awe-inspiring encounters with the bears that change their perspective on the apex predators.

“If people understood [the bears], and replaced the sense of fear they had of them with respect, then there’d be a lot less conflict between humans and bears.”

Fraser Koroluk, a biologist and longtime local tour operator who runs Kynoch Adventure Tours, believes some of the bears are being habituated by tourists, who travel the valley in unsanctioned sightseeing tours in search of bear sightings, outside of designated areas like Tweedsmuir Provincial Park.

“The biggest change that we’ve seen in the past 10 years is the invention of social media and the iPhone. And that is the little step, in my mind, that is pushing the bears to tolerance,” he explained.

“Most people do come here to see bears in some capacity. A lot of our visitors are from overseas — mostly Europe, and America as well. All over the world. And they are astounded that we have bears. And, quite frankly, they’re astounded that they are in the community and that a lot of people in the community aren’t comfortable with that. Most of the visitors would assume that the local population has adjusted their reality to be living with the bears. And they’re a little bit surprised at the disconnect that they see sometimes. In obvious situations, where they see bears in apple trees. Where they see bears eating human food. Which, even to a layperson from another country, seems like a very odd event.”

But the transition for those living in the Bella Coola Valley hasn’t been as simple, or as easy, as some outsiders may expect. And Koroluk believes the responsibility for coexisting with the bears lies largely with the region’s residents, with some simple actions they can undertake to protect both themselves and the bears.

“Electric fences are a great way to keep bears away from obvious, easy attractants. They work on chicken coups, poultry operations, fruit trees, compost, all that sort of thing,” Koroluk explained.

“This is an area where bears have been since time immemorial. We have moved into their habitat, and they are making themselves known as a presence right now. Whether it’s because there’s an abundance of unnatural food in areas or a shortage of their natural food in the rivers — when there is more salmon, there’s less conflict. So, the bears are seeking food.”

For better or for worse, that means the bears are increasingly found in highly populated areas. And the region’s tourism industry is directly impacted by their presence.

Tom Hermance, president of Bella Coola Valley Tourism, told Global News the grizzly bears generate roughly $100,000 in direct revenue every viewing season — but, indirectly, their economic reach is much wider than that.

“I would propose that 100 [per cent] of all tourism dollars can be traced back to the bear viewing,” Hermance said in a written statement. “In fact, every aspect of our tourist economy, from restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, gas stations, and countless other venues benefit from the reputation of Bella Coola’s most profitable asset: grizzly bears.”

Hermance agrees with the observation of many residents in the region that an increasing number of bears have been spotted in the valley, and this past summer especially. He, like others, points to the season’s low fish count, and Bella Coola’s close proximity to last summer’s Noohalk and Sallomps Mountain wildfires.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development told Global News that the province’s grizzly bear population is considered stable, with roughly 15,000 believed to be living in the wild. In a statement to Global News, the ministry said its own bear biologists do not expect the population to change as a result of the province’s recently imposed hunting ban.

“I think the economy now, because it’s so dependent on the grizzly bear, it’s very important for people to protect these animals,” said Lamb. “Demographics are changing. You’re getting people coming into this community who know how to coexist with these animals: electric fencing, dealing with attractants.”

And Lamb calls that shift in attitude a positive one.

“Because they are amazing animals. And there’s so much we can learn about ourselves through life and living with these animals: about coexistence, tolerance, and even embracing the differences that we have between human and bears,” she explained.

“There’s nothing about a grizzly bear that we need to fear. There’s just a lot of amazingness that we need to understand.”

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