It’s a common story: autumn comes around, fruit ripens on the trees and isn’t picked, people leave their garbage out and a bear that would normally pass through town without harming anyone becomes a nuisance, and then becomes dangerous.
A conservation officer is called, and despite everyone’s best efforts, the bear has to be euthanized.
That’s usually the end of the story.
In this one, a bit of good came from an unfortunate circumstance when the remains of the bear in question were donated to the Acwsalcta School in Bella Coola to help teach traditional uses for the animal.
After multiple calls to the conservation office’s RAPP line, Conservation Officer Steven Hodgson said he became aware of a black bear that was constantly among the houses in Bella Coola and becoming “heavily habituated to human presence.”
After a dog was hurt by the bear, Hodgson spent some time trying to get the bear to leave a yard with a large fruit tree.
“We were not successful in getting the bear to leave for quite some time,” he said.
For the next week, the bear was continuously in town. People would encounter it in broad daylight; it caused some property damage to a vehicle and even bedded down underneath the porch of an elder, said Hodgson.
The bear also got into a garbage container, accessing non-natural food sources.
At that point, Hodgson knew the bear would not be a fit candidate for relocating, he said, and would have to be euthanized to protect people’s safety.
Hodgson then contacted Vanessa Hans, a Nuxalk culture and language teacher at the Acwsalcta school, to see if someone could use the bear, known as “t’la” in Nuxalk, for traditional medicine.
She, he said, got the ball rolling.
“We get to teach the children the traditional value of the t’la,” she said, and the school plans to use all aspects of the animal that they can in their cultural teachings.
The fur will be tanned at the school by one of the teachers, with participation from the students, and will be used for traditional masks. The skin will be used to wrap a baby for spiritual purposes. The fat will be rendered down and used for medicinal purposes and the claws will be used for medicine bags and medicinal bundles, she said. If the meat is still good, the traditional foods teacher will also use aspects of that.
All will be used to help teach the students the methods and traditional uses for the bear.
In addition, when Hodgson presented the bear to the school, he talked with students about the importance of managing attractants in the community in order to prevent further conflicts with bears.
“Bears are always going to be in the community of Bella Coola. They are always going to transit through, it’s just the type of habitat we all live in. But, the bears, if they don’t gain access to food in our areas than they are not going to remain in those areas. They will simply pass on through,” he said.
In return, the students are now offering to go around and glean fruit from trees if residents can’t or don’t want to pick it themselves.
“As unfortunate as the situation is, there is some good that came of it, and we had an education component,” said Hodgson.
“It provides a great reminder to the community: this particular part of the regalia is a bear that was killed in conflict with human beings and its a great reminder to everybody all the time that this is what happens if we don’t manage our attractants and behave properly within the community.”
Hans, in addition to helping coordinate using all aspects of the bear, is creating a video of the different teachings being done with it that she will bring to the elders who still speak the language to translate the conversation that has taken place around the bear.
“We can teach the children the language as well and put out a message to our own people and our people in the whole community for that matter about making sure there are no attractants for the bears to come in,” she explained.
For his part, Hodgson said there is no excuse for not getting rid of attractants in the area.
“There are so many opportunities in the community right now for people to utilize for attractant management programs,” he said. “It is our fault that the bear is there.”