B.C.’s bears are now out of hibernation, and while the average bruin is fairly smart, they probably haven’t heard the message about physical distancing; something residents can help with by taking steps to keep bears out of yards and gardens and away from human beings, who have enough to deal with at the moment.
“Bears come out when there’s food available,” says Vanessa Isnardy, the provincial coordinator for WildSafeBC. “If there’s no food the sows and cubs will stayed denning a little longer, but the males will come out earlier looking for winter kills, and they’ll protect their kills, especially grizzlies.
“If you find a carcass while you’re out let a conservation officer know, or park staff if you’re in a park, so they can let others know there’s a carcass. And you don’t want to linger.”
She says that 2019 was a high conflict year for bears, especially in the Lower Mainland, but that no one is sure why.
“It could be a combination of factors. We do know that if you have attractants that appeal to bears they will smell that and come into communities.”
With lots of people at home right now, Isnardy says it’s a good time to look around and see what could potentially attract wildlife to your property, such as food, water, shelter, and space.
“Make sure a bear’s first food is not your garbage. Secure it inside if possible, or in a bear-resistant container. Get some sort of structure to put your garbage in if possible, and if you have curbside collection don’t put smelly items out too early. If you have smelly items, put them in the freezer, then put them out when you put your garbage at the curb.”
That should be on the morning of collection, not the night before. “Bears tend to be more active in urban areas when no one is around, so that’s at night. If you put garbage out too early bears will come looking to see what that smell is about.”
Isnardy notes that a lot of people are out in their gardens, and now is the time to do planning as well as planting.
“If you have fruit-bearing trees, find out how best to prune them to manage your harvest. Sometimes trees get too big, so you can’t reach the upper branches to get fruit, or they’re not producing quality fruit, or are producing fruit you don’t want. You want trees to be manageable, so it’s a good time to think of that, and prune accordingly.”
Urban chickens are increasingly popular, and Isnardy says anyone with hens might want to look at electric fencing. “It’s a good way to protect your chickens from predators; not just bears, but coyotes too. It’s more sustainable for your birds and for your investment. It’s really tragic when a bear gets drawn into a community by chickens. It gets a taste for chickens, and starts going from coop to coop.”
She notes that electric fences are designed to hurt, but not harm. “There’s no permanent damage. They’re safe to use, but the trick is to make sure they’re properly installed and working well. Once bears recognize electric fences it becomes a visual cue, and they’ll ignore properties with those fences.
“They’re smart. Once they’ve learned something is harmful they’ll avoid it. And if they’ve learned something gives them a good food reward, they’ll come back.”
One food source that bears quickly realize gives a good bang for the buck is bird feeders. “One kilo of birdseed contains 8,000 calories, so that’s a really high reward for bears. Hang them high out of reach so bears can’t shimmy along a rope and get them.”
Isnardy adds that people should also make sure to catch any seeds that fall, as they’ll attract rodents. “Once they’re attracted to your home they could get inside.” If that’s too challenging, she suggests taking the feeders down and giving them a good clean, then storing them away until the birds need them next winter.
“I know that’s tough. Many people enjoy feeders and enjoy watching the birds, especially when they’re stuck close to home, but there’s lots of natural food around [for birds] now.
“Some people enjoy feeding hummingbirds, but not everyone agrees that feeding them artificially is a good idea. And even hummingbird food can be attractive to bears, so make sure it’s inaccessible to them.”
She also recommends that people keep cats indoors for a variety of health and safety reasons.
“They can be predated on by other animals, and they can get diseases from wandering outside. Their scat can have toxoplasmosis, which is dangerous for pregnant women, so if a cat’s gone in your garden it could be harmful.”
If your cats (or any other animals you have) go outside, Isnardy doesn’t recommend leaving pet food out for them. “If the food is good for your pet it’s good for bears. If you do feed them outside then feed them while you watch, then take the food inside when you’re done.” She adds that the same holds true for feed for chickens and other livestock: make sure it’s secure, because if it’s good for them it’s good for other animals.
Gardeners should also make sure that they’re doing a good job with their compost. “Keep it well-turned so it doesn’t smell, don’t add too much at one time, and don’t add meat products. Stick to equal amounts of greens and browns.”
Backyard cooks should burn off the grease from their barbecue and empty the grease trap. “The smell of that is a pretty big attractant, and a bear can do a number on an expensive barbecue.”
Isnardy says that anyone at home trying to entertain children should check out the WildSafeBC website (https://wildsafebc.com/), which features all their “Wild Wednesday” videos. You can also find details of the WildSafe Ranger program, “Tick Talk Tuesday” videos, and a wealth of material about B.C.’s amazing wildlife and how to keep it wild while keeping our communities safe.