A grizzly bear shot downtown last week has once again brought the issue of human-wildlife conflicts to the forefront.
This year many residents have reported a spike in bear activity, especially in the townsite, with numerous bears being sighted in broad daylight strolling the streets and raiding fish tubs, fruit trees and berry bushes.
Last week a grizzly was shot along the Bella Coola River at approximately 10:30 in the evening. The shooters were unable to determine if they had killed or wounded the bear as the shots were fired in the dark and from a considerable distance. People were on edge as it was unsure whether or not the bear had survived.
At first light the next morning a coalition of responders including the Nuxalk Guardians, the RCMP, and BC Parks took to the river and found a second grizzly eating the carcass of the shot bear.
Later discussions with the Conservation Officer Service, the Nuxalk Nation, and the RCMP agreed that targeting a bear in darkness was not safe and could have resulted in a wounded, and therefore more dangerous, animal.
Many people treasure the presence of bears in the Valley, but that relationship is complicated as many people are also fearful of them. However, using firearms to deal with bears comes with its own set of risks.
“I believe the community is fearful of both grizzlies walking the streets and people running around with firearms shooting at night. Shooting at night is always a concern for obvious reasons,” said Conservation Officer Len Butler. “Under provincial legislation it is unlawful to discharge a firearm at wildlife at night except in problem wildlife situations where a human safety factor is considered.”
The Nuxalk Nation has also expressed regret over the shooting, saying it was unfortunate. “The shooting of the bear was an unfortunate incident which we should learn from as a community,” said Stewardship Director Megan Moody. “From here on, the Nation wants to move forward and work with community members, the Conservation Officers and the RCMP to come forward with solutions.”
Solutions were the focus of a joint meeting last Thursday night which included numerous community members and agencies involved in dealing with wildlife. Several options were discussed to try and alleviate a number of problems.
“The community and all the players involved made the first step working together last Thursday night. The Nuxalk Nation, COS, RCMP, BC Parks and WildSafeBC sorted out differences and hopefully will work together to make entire community safer and deter grizzly bears from using the current corridors through town,” said Butler. “We have come up with some solutions to attempt to prevent human bear conflicts.”
The following morning the alleyways, backyards and roads were being brushed out and opened up. The electric fence program was discussed, as was the possibility of bear hazing training for the Nuxalk Guardians and fish containment for the daily catch.
“Removing the attractants is the answer but change is difficult,” said Butler.
Chief Councilor Wally Webber expressed his frustration at the lack of a full-time CO in the Valley, and Butler responded that the community ‘unfortunately has not put forth a good enough argument or maintained enough effort.’ However, the COS has entered an agreement with BC Parks to provide CO training to a Park Ranger in the Valley to help alleviate some of the pressure.
While there is no question Nuxalkmc people have lived next to bears for thousands of years, some residents feel unnerved by the proximity of the animals and are worried for their safety and the safety of their children. However it’s how the bear behaves towards people, not necessarily how close it is, that determines whether or not the COS will remove it.
“Given the current situation with the bears natural feeding and the discussions with the community, the Nuxalk Nation the COS have decided not to remove any more bears at this time,” said Butler. “Although they are close by, they are not exhibiting aggressive behaviour.”
The COS did utilize other tactics such as rubber bullets to discourage the animals from residential areas, but without a full-time officer follow-through is difficult and the bears tend to return quickly.
Melody Schooner, whose property at the end of Top Street has been a hub of bear activity, is hopeful the solutions will be enough.
Schooner said she doesn’t mind the bears nearby feeding in the creeks, but she can’t handle them bedding down near her backyard. “I’m nervous for the kids going to the bus stop in the morning, I don’t want that bear to hurt anyone,” she said.
With the help of the Nuxalk Bear Safety Project, Schooner has removed fruit trees, berry bushes, and fenced her salmon. She smokes and cans fish all summer and fall, and her family depends on that food. This summer’s close encounters have left her too anxious to do anymore. “I’m still feeling scared,” she said. “I’d like to smoke more fish but with that bear around I’m not going to chance it.”
Community leader Clyde Tallio suggested community initiatives to pick the fruit and establish a protocol around dealing with bears that overstep residents’ comforts zones.
“The whole community, from townsite to up Valley, needs to come together and combine our collective knowledge, stories and ideologies,” said Tallio. “Traditional knowledge tells us we weren’t taught to be afraid of bears, so we need to reassess our values and what our young people will inherit and come up with a solution that will help us to return to coexisting with our environment.”
There are thought to be several other factors influencing the bears behaviour, and this is also something the Nation wants to understand. The Nuxalk Bear Study is hoping to answer some of those questions.
“We are continuing to reduce any attractants in the community, but there are factors affecting the bears that we do not yet fully understand,” said Moody. “Through our Nuxalk Bear (DNA) Study we hope to learn more about their movements, population numbers and how salmon numbers are affecting them. We need to adapt our behaviour and try to understand what is changing theirs if we want to have them around in the future. We are not going anywhere and neither are they.”
Hereditary Chief Deric Snow, who also attended the meeting last week, echoed that need for understanding. He also called for more face-to-face meetings among community members, saying that perhaps the use of social media sites like Facebook is not the best way to communicate on such emotional issues.
“The bear is a part of us, it’s our crest and a smayusta, but we are also born with a bear spirit inside,” Snow said. “I understand there’s a safety issue but I would like to see the bears kept alive. If there’s any way to do that, I would like our people to go that way.”
If a resident is concerned about a bear, they are urged to call the CO Hotline at 1-877-952-7277, the Band Office at 250 799 5633, WildSafe BC at 250-982-2298 or the RCMP at 250 799 5363. Electric fencing can be obtained on loan from the Nuxalk Bear Safety Project and WildSafe BC.