Seven bears have been trapped and euthanized in Nelson this year as of Sept. 9, according to Conservation Officer Nathan Smienk.
He says the number of bears in Nelson this year is far beyond normal. His office gets between 10 and 30 calls per day, and his office has received more calls from the Nelson area than from the entire East Kootenay this year.
“It’s definitely keeping us busy,” he says.
The officers don’t respond in person to all of those calls. Mostly it’s a phone conversation with the caller to assess the situation and discuss the management of garbage and fruit trees.
“Sometimes you might have to pick fruit early,” he tells them. “Don’t let any fruit fall on the ground.”
If they have fruit trees that aren’t being used, he suggests they be cut down.
The conservation officers only visit a caller in person if a bear is behaving aggressively or causing property damage. Smienk says bears have been known to break into cars or tear the siding from buildings to get food.
He says this year’s seven euthanized bears is the largest number since he started working the Nelson area in 2014. A normal year would see one or two bears destroyed in the city.
He says preventing these deaths should be a community effort.
“I want people to have conversations with their neighbours and make sure that everybody is doing their part. Because otherwise, ultimately, the bears are the ones that don’t fare so well.”
Stickers on the garbage
Lisa Thomson sometimes travels through Nelson neighbourhoods in the late evening, putting a sticker on garbage that has been put out for garbage pickup the next morning.
The sticker politely asks people not to put their garbage out until morning, to avoid attracting bears overnight.
Thomson is the WildSafeBC representative for Kaslo and Nelson, providing education to help humans and wildlife coexist.
She follows up on her stickers a few weeks later, checking for compliance, and she sometimes finds the results discouraging.
“It’s just been super heartbreaking and disappointing to go back into those neighbourhoods and see the same issues,” she says.
Sometimes she sees garbage being stored outside or in an open carport. She knocks on doors to have a chat with residents, explaining that any garbage smell will attract bears, who get bolder as they get more habituated to foraging for garbage, ultimately putting their own lives at risk.
Sometimes Thomson goes back some days later to see if the conversation had any effect, and often there has been no change.
“The garbage cans are still out there, still in the carport, they’re still putting their bins out early.”
She estimates that in Nelson and Kaslo she has made 1,000 such one-on-one visits this year.
Enforcing the law
Leaving garbage outside a secured building violates of the City of Nelson’s Waste Management and Wildlife Attractant Bylaw.
Bylaw officers will visit a residence whenever they receive a complaint from neighbours or a notice from a conservation officer, a spokesperson from the City of Nelson told the Nelson Star.
Their first step is to provide education and a warning. For repeat offenders, they might issue a $150 ticket which can increase to $500 for repeat offences. But the primary goal, they say, is to educate the public about the bylaw.
So far this year, officers have assisted conservation officers with 104 calls and received 60 calls from the public and have issued four tickets.
Thomson wishes the City of Nelson would resume its sale of bear-proof garbage bins to residents, as it did in 2017. She said she hopes to collaborate with the city and local hardware businesses to bring in these bins. Some sort of collaboration would be needed, she says, because the bins are expensive (they individually cost $200 in 2017).
Colin Innes, public works director for the city, told the Nelson Star it did not continue with the residential bear-proof bin sales program because it decided instead to spend the money on putting bear-proof bins in the city’s parks, adding more each year (seven in 2022) as costs allow. The metal public bins installed in parks cost $1,800 each plus labour for installation.
Innes said his staff members have not noticed an increase in the number of bears in Nelson this year.
The problem of smelly garbage attracting bears may be solved later this year when the city rolls out its organic waste collection program. Each household will be given a countertop dehydrator that will reduce food waste to a fraction of its volume. The city says the resulting dry waste will not smell and can easily be stored safely prior to curbside collection.
West Kootenay bear biologist Michael Proctor says female bears are driven by an urgent need to gain enough fat over the summer, not only because they need it to survive hibernation, but because of “delayed implantation.”
“They had sex in in the spring, May or June,” he says, “and they have what we call delayed implantation. So the fertilized egg floats in their reproductive (organs), and then it implants to become a full-term pregnancy if they get fat enough by November.”
Not getting enough fat over the summer and fall can mean the eggs do not implant. So female bears need to find food wherever they can.
Proctor calls this an evolutionary strategy to cope with a varying food supply. He says in the West Kootenay it is the berry crop that drives fat deposition.
He says the condition of the huckleberry crop can vary across the landscape, but a bad berry year can lead to more conflicts between bears and humans.
But he doesn’t want us to just blame the berries.
“That is coupled with what we call available attractions, available human foods and garbage. You need the two conditions to drive the conflict.”
Thomson says Kaslo and Nelson residents are very different in their approach to bears and garbage.
“Kaslo is such a small community, so they kind of police themselves,” she says, adding that Kaslo’s advanced awareness may have stemmed from the controversial killing of a bear by a police officer in front of the crowd at the Kaslo Jazz Etc. Festival in 2004.
“That’s when the community was like, ‘hey, this can’t happen again, we’ve got to do better.’ And they’ve been working towards that ever since.”
WildSafe BC offers a bear-safe community designation based on six criteria. She says Kaslo has achieved five out of six so far.
“As far as I’m aware, Nelson does not have any intention of becoming a bear-smart community, and they will need to lift their game 10-fold before even they could remotely consider moving toward that,” Thomson says.