All too often in New Brunswick or across Canada, there is a headline on the front page of the newspaper where a black bear was shot. Though widespread, the province of New Brunswick’s bear population is estimated at over 15,000, they are elusive and often not seen. Human wildlife conflicts between people and bears have increased as suburban sprawl encroaches into former bear habitat.
According to DNR operational procedures, when an animal poses no threat to human safety and is likely to get out of the situation if left alone, then no action should be taken, but there are times when it may be necessary to destroy wildlife, the policy states. The decision of what action to take is at the discretion of the DNR officer at the scene. The first option is always to chase the bear back into the woods, but in most cases, when the bear is surrounded by highways, houses and buildings, and when bears are cornered, they tend to become stressed and they are determined to be a safety hazard and for public safety and they are destroyed. Should all encounters like these with black bears lead to their destruction or is there a more liberal way of managing bears and people’s fear of bears?
I was fortunate enough recently to listen in a theatre at Canmore Collegiate High School to former Banff national park superintendent Kevin Van Tighem speaking on the subject of bears and our fear of bears.
The talk highlighted the launch of his book Bears Without Fear which WildSmart Bow Valley, an organization that encourages efforts by communities to reduce negative human-wildlife interactions, hosted. His book tries to address what he calls Canadians’ irrational fear of bears.
His main message is the woods aren't filled with frightening and unpredictable bears; the woods are filled with frightened and unpredictable people. The former superintendent of Banff National Park believes Canadians' fear of bears, and our efforts to control them, threatens the whole species.
He has no illusions about their power. His own sister and her husband were viciously attacked by a grizzly in Waterton Park in the 1980s after stumbling upon a grizzly over a sheep carcass in a snow flurry. The assault ultimately led to her death.
Charlie Russell also spoke at the event. Russell knows better than anyone what it's like to be up close and intimate with bears. Russell literally lived with the grizzlies on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula for 10 years. Eating, sleeping and fishing with them.
Van Tighen would say most people don’t take black bears too seriously. Black bears are more so entertaining feeding at the dump or caught up a tree in someone’s front yard. Black bears though quickly learn to exploit human laziness in their endless quest for energy-rich foods. As a result, their foraging frequently brings them into conflict with humans, who rarely tolerate the bears or blame themselves.
We grew up not really knowing bears and what we think we know about bears comes from common misconceptions. We are also hardwired to feel emotions in our human brain for survival, mainly fear against large predators.
Today we are more informed about bears and have research available to us that was gathered using technology like GPS, satellites and telemetry. We are capable of better behavior about bears through education and engagement in the community. In worst-case scenarios, we have a technology available to us that can deter an attack just by carrying bear spray.
The best way to avoid bear problems is prevention and not to attract them in the first place. Garbage or any other possible bear attractants, such as pet food and bird feeders, should be kept inside. You can run into a bear anywhere in the forests, be it on a busy trail in your community or in the remote backcountry. Bears generally prefer to avoid people. However, encounters between bears and people do occur. Knowing how to avoid an encounter with a bear is the best way to enjoy the outdoors, safely this summer.
Trevor Donald is the student communications intern with RCE Tantramar, a Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development. He is also a student at Mount Allison University, where he is studying geography and environment.