Debate continues to rage around illegal shooting of black bear

The illegal shooting of a black bear has become the tipping point for some residents in Bella Coola.

Common ground is required to effectively address human-wildlife conflicts.

The illegal shooting of a black bear last August in Hagensborg has become the tipping point for some residents when it comes to how human-wildlife conflicts are addressed in the Bella Coola Valley.

As the original story ran, charges were laid in the illegal shooting of a black bear on Olsen Road that had been eating cherries on a residential property. The resident who shot the bear was fined $115 for failing to report it.

Given that there was some initial confusion about who shot the bear, the Conservation Officer Service (COS) confirmed that they conducted their investigation with this knowledge in mind. “We were aware of the discrepancies in this case and we investigated them to the best of our abilities,” said CO Len Butler. “But, at the end of the day, we have a sworn statement from the individual who claimed responsibility and interviews to support that statement, so we concluded our investigation.”

The property owner, who does not reside at the residence, was served with a ‘dangerous wildlife protection order,’ as her property harboured the cherries that attracted the bear. Failing to comply with the order can result in a fine of $575. After a discussion with the COS, the cherry tree was removed.

This shooting and the subsequent letters published in the Coast Mountain News highlight the challenges people face living in close proximity with bears. Recent discoveries of dead bears being dumped on logging roads, apples left to rot in recreational areas, a poor salmon run, the lack of a Conservation Officer in the Valley, attractant issues, and the desire of local individuals to both protect and deter bears, have left emotions running high.

Simply put, the Valley has not received great accolades when it comes to how residents respond to bear conflicts. Although the majority of homeowners do not shoot bears, a bear killer is always going to hog the spotlight in the eyes of the press, especially those on the outside.

No one is going to dispute the right of an individual to protect life and property from an aggressive animal, but each case is specific and largely depends on the personal comfort level of the individual involved. When children, livestock, and past experiences come into play, some may feel more threatened than others.

What sets people apart is a wide range of attitudes toward bears. While one person may be comfortable to simply chase a bear away, another might feel their only option is to destroy it. Attitudes take time and understanding to change.

Local photographer Michael Wigle says he is comfortable with bears being a part of his community. “I’ve heard some people prefer to shoot first and ask questions later, or not ask questions at all. But I’ve seen hundreds of bears and I have never felt threatened,” said Wigle. “I encountered a bear in my yard the other night, but I took it with a grain of salt. The last thing I would do is pull out a gun.”

Some negative examples include the 2010 shooting of a mother grizzly and her three cubs, which drew provincial attention as the Conservation Officer had already criticized the homeowner for failing to put up an electric fence on their chicken coop. Another was chastised after shooting bears that had been attracted to salmon on their back porch.

Other residents have been required to complete the Restorative Justice Program and pay fines for shooting bears on their property, but the fact is that bears are still killed and their deaths go unreported. Now seems to be a good time to have an honest conversation about why that happens.

It is precisely that issue that led some disgruntled residents to establish the ‘Bearing Witness Phone Tree.’ The publishing of this intention led to an immediate backlash from homeowners in the Valley who greatly resented the idea of any unsanctioned organization setting foot on their property. Unfortunately the idea itself, though perhaps noble in intention, may serve to divide the community even further.

Jason Moody of the Central Coast Grizzly Patrol, a Nuxalk initiative, clarified that The Bearing Witness Phone Tree is not the brainchild of the Grizzly Patrol, but rather a grassroots response from a number of community members who felt the need for action.

“When we talk about the Bearing Witness Phone Tree, we are not intending to enter people’s property and break any laws,” he says. “The Phone Tree is simply a tool that was established to call like-minded people to witness the event if a bear has been killed. If people choose remove bears bodies, then there is no record left, there is nothing to give the COs if they were to investigate, and we can’t allow this to keep happening.”

Several other community members who claim to be a part of the Phone Tree backed this statement, saying that they felt Corissa McNeilly’s experience in opposing the shooting of a black bear in her neighbourhood should not be something anyone should have to experience alone. In their words, the Phone Tree was established to offer support for any individual who suspects or witnesses the shooting of a bear.

Local residents willing to risk conflict with their own populace demonstrates that this situation deserves critical attention. There has to be a better way to deal with people who risk repeated run-ins with bears or kill them illegally, and pitting resident against resident will not establish a common ground.

Although efforts by agencies such as Bear Aware and the Bella Coola Bear Working Group have focused on reducing conflicts, participation in these groups is voluntary and will not reach the person who is not truly interested in modifying their behaviour. Furthermore, the threat of a $115 fine can be argued to be as much of as a deterrent as a speeding ticket.

Chris Genovali, an Environmental Law Student at the University of Victoria, is exceptionally critical of BC’s Wildlife Act and has referred to Bella Coola as ‘ground zero’ when it comes to chronic human-bear conflicts on the coast.

While Section 88.1 of the Wildlife Act makes it an offence to leave out items that could attract dangerous wildlife, it consists only of a system of warnings until an animal is actually destroyed as a result, and even then the perpetrator may only face a marginal fine.

Genovali proposes amending the Wildlife Act to replace repeated warnings with penalties. An initial warning would be followed an immediate penalty if no action were taken. These penalties would increase each time with repeat offenders, and Conservation Officers could then charge negligent residents immediately, before problem behaviours develop and animals are destroyed.

“It is time to amend the Wildlife Act to penalize the negligent management of bear attractants by property owners and residents living in grizzly country,” said Genovali. “It is time to save BC’s grizzly bears from these needless kinds of deaths.”

While Bella Coola has more than its fair share of run-ins with bears, our community does not exist in isolation on this matter. Bears are shot and killed all over the province by residents and authorities.

Our neighbouring community of Williams Lake has witnessed the death of dozens of black bears this year, most of whom became habituated to human food sources left out by negligent residents. This has caused the same strain between residents and authorities, and residents and residents, that Bella Coola is experiencing now.

At this point, all we can do as a community is continue to act responsibly. We can demonstrate good homeowner behaviour by managing attractants to avoid conflicts, and good moral behaviour by reporting bears if they are killed.

And we do have resources to help. If you have a situation that needs critical attention, call the CO Service hotline at 1-877-952-7277 (RAPP) or the RCMP at (250) 799-5365.

The Gleaning Program will help you pick the fruit you cannot manage. Dayna Chapman is the representative and can be reached at (250) 799- 5287. The Bear Working Group was established to spearhead Bella Coola-based solutions for managing conflicts, and Bear Aware Bella Coola has the tools to help establish good husbandry practices.

Bear Aware has had great success with attractant management, especially electric fencing, and both groups are on the ground and ready to answer your questions. Ellie Archer is the community representative, and she can be reached at (250) 982-2557 or (250) 957-8445.

While it might be unreasonable to imagine that a bear will never be killed in Bella Coola again, as our community continues to become known as a bear-viewing Mecca, one might argue that there has never been a better time to foster coexistence.

The Coast Mountain News welcomes submissions on this topic. Please contact the Editor if you wish to express your viewpoint on anything printed in this publication.