Grizzly bears have started to emerge from hibernation. (Google stock photo)

Column: Prevention helps protect bears

By James Murray, Observer contributor

As the snow begins to melt and disappear and winter finally shows signs of coming to an end, more and more people will start venturing out into the great outdoors. Whether taking their dog for a walk in the woods or heading out on a spring hike, probably the last thing on their mind is an encounter with a bear coming out of hibernation. Here’s where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

There are bears in just about every part of the province of British Columbia. Bears, especially black bears, have adapted extremely well to the encroachment of humans into their habitat. So it is only inevitable that bear-human contacts and conflicts would occur – with ever increasing regularity – all too often with disastrous consequences for the bears. Like I said, with the current warmer weather, bears are soon starting to come out of hibernation. They will be both hungry and ornery. So it is up to us to reduce the number of incidents of bear-human contact.

One way to prevent a bear-human contact situation is to simply stay away from bears. Which means not being able to enjoy the great outdoors. Another way is to become “bear aware” by learning about bears, their habits and the habitat where they live. Know that when you enter into certain areas, you are entering their territory, and, that bears are territorial. They will protect their food source from other bears as well as any other perceived threat to their food and/or well being. This protectionism policy is even greater when a sow feels the need to protect her young. Inadvertently coming across a bear on the trail is one thing, being responsible for attracting bears is another. Remember that a dog barking will both attract a bear’s attention as well as be perceived as a threat.

If you do end up confronting a bear on the trail, in camp or in your yard, remain calm, and by all means keep away from the bear. Never approach or attempt to chase a bear, as bears can move very quickly. Once the bear has left the area, check to ensure there are no attractants that will draw it back. Leave the area as soon as possible.

Keep in mind too, that prevention starts in your own back yard. Clean up anything edible (to bears) such as garbage, bird seed, compost and fruit that has fallen from trees. If you do spot a bear in your yard, remain calm, keep away from the bear and, if possible, bring children and pets indoors. Never approach or attempt to chase a bear, as bears can move very quickly. Once the bear has left the area, check the yard to ensure there are no attractants that will draw it back.

The Bear Smart Community Program – a voluntary preventative conservation program, designed by the Ministry of Environment in partnership with the British Columbia Conservation Foundation and the Union of British Columbia Municipalities, was designed to address the root causes of bear-human conflicts, reduce risks to human safety and private property and reduce the number of bears that have to be destroyed each year. In communities where attractants are managed properly through the Bear Smart program, there has been a decline in the number of bear-human conflicts and subsequently the number of bears that have had to be destroyed.

Too many bears have learned to associate people with food. This altering of bear behaviour, known as food conditioning, combined with a loss of fear of humans through repeated contact, known as habituation, more often than not, results in potentially dangerous contact/conflict situations. By cutting down trees, clearing land and building homes in areas that were once natural bear habitat, we have inadvertently encroached upon their natural territory. Ironically, we have displaced bears only to inadvertently lure them back into the same areas by leaving easy food lying around for them to feed on and building urban hiking trails through their natural habitat.

Bears that have become human food conditioned and/or have lost their fear of humans become more brazen when they are hungry. Especially in the spring. It is important to remember that when you are heading out into the wilds you are entering into their territory. It is also important to remember that black bears are large, strong, fast, dangerous and unpredictable.

Common sense will go a long way in preventing bear-human contacts and conflicts.

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