'Unforgivable': Average of 2.4 black bears killed daily by B.C. conservation officers in August

Dozens of black bears were killed in B.C. last month by conservation officers after what officials say was a busy time with thousands of calls.

According to provincial statistics posted online Wednesday, conservation officers were called 3,524 times about black bears in August. Officers went to 335 of those calls and in 74 cases, a bear was killed.

Historically, late summer tends to be busy for conservation officers in the province, but this marks the second-highest number of bears killed in August in the last five years.

Officials estimate B.C.'s black bear population is about 120,000 to 160,000. From 2016 to 2020, an average of 494 bears were destroyed each year. So far in 2021, 236 black bears have been killed by conservation officers across the province. 

For Luci Cadman, executive director of the North Shore Black Bear Society, these figures are a major problem.

"The number of bears that are killed in British Columbia is unforgivable. It's very clear to me that black bears are seen as disposable, and their lives seem to have no value," she told CTV News Vancouver.

"When it comes to conserving black bears, that isn't a priority for the Conservation Officer Service, their mandate is public safety."

Cadman explained she thinks there are many misconceptions about bear behaviour, what conservation officers do and what actions the public needs to take.

"We've become so careless," she said. "People are failing to act and do very simple things."

HOT SUMMER IMPACTING HABITS?

Mike Badry, provincial wildlife conflict manager with BC Conservation Officer Service, told CTV News it's been "an interesting year" for officers.

"What we saw through July, provincially, was that bear conflicts were quite low – as low as we’ve seen them in a few years," he said.

"Despite the really hot, dry weather, natural food production was actually pretty good through the early summer and bears had a good natural food source. But that hot, dry weather also led to that food source drying up relatively early."

While BCCOS doesn't always know what causes big swings in annual conflict numbers, Badry said it's often due to natural food availability. Now that natural food is drying up, Badry said officers are hearing about a lot more conflicts with bears trying to access food from people.

While calls may have been low provincially, Cadman said it appears July was busy on the North Shore.

"The phone has been ringing nonstop," she said, saying that's partially because people have been spending more time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Conservation officers were very, very busy in July, and at the end of July informed us that six bears had been killed for entering a confined space."

Those six bears made up nearly half of the total number destroyed by officers throughout the entire province in July, when 14 were killed.

"It's been a very bad year for our bears on the North Shore," Cadman said.

FOOD LINKED TO CONFLICTS

One of the primary reasons a bear might be killed by conservation officers, at least when it's involved in a conflict with humans, is because the animal might be labelled food conditioned.

Badry explained this happens when the bear has "made that connection that people actually equal a good source of food," and warned people need to be cautious with their garbage, compost and fruit trees.

"Once a bear has learned to associate people with food, that behaviour is incredibly hard to change. Those are the bears that probably end up being destroyed due to conflict," he said.

"There's still a whole lot of work to do to get people to appropriately manage those attractants."

But Cadman has an issue with labelling bears as food conditioned.

"Somebody might call in to the conservation service … that a bear is eating berries in the back of the property, and that bear will be immediately labelled as food conditioned," she said.

"It just seems to me those keywords, 'habituated,' 'food conditioned' are just excuses, I believe, to kill bears. Certainly a bear eating berries is not food conditioned."

Cadman did say that access to unnatural food sources is causing bears to spend more time closer to homes, which is an issue.

"Very, very sadly, for black bears, they just need to make one mistake like that, where nobody is hurt, and they will pay with their lives," she said.

'BIG CHANGES' NEEDED

According to Badry, the sooner a member of the public calls BCCOS about an issue with a bear, the more options officers will have.

"A lot of people will hesitate to call our call centre to report a conflict because they're concerned a bear will be destroyed," he said.

"If we don't get that call and people just keep quiet and that bear … continues to become more highly and highly food conditioned, now we have very few options to deal with that bear, in fact to the point where destruction is probably the only option."

But Cadman suggested there's a reason the public might have a hard time trusting conservation officers. In many situations, she said, residents have thought a bear would be relocated but it was killed instead. In fact, in June, provincial statistics show 75 bears were killed by conservation officers and just one was relocated.

In other cases, the way the bear was dealt with was upsetting to witness. In one example, Cadman said residents reported a bear being tranquilized while in a tree, causing it to fall to its death.

"This happened in front of an elementary school a few years ago, students and teachers did see this happen," she said.

In another instance, Cadman said, a woman's mother was apparently asked by a conservation officer for some water to mix up a tranquilizer for a bear that would be destroyed.

"It's definitely having an effect on the community. A lot of people are quite traumatized, actually, by what they're seeing from the conduct of the officers," she said.

Moving forward, Cadman said she'd like to see more education for the public and more training for conservation officers.

"I've yet to really see or hear about any kind of non-lethal management," she said. "We certainly just want to see some big, big changes with the policies with the conduct and with the training of the conservation officers."

Cadman and Badry agree the public needs to be aware of their actions as well.

"You're lucky to live in a province that has such a healthy, large predator populations, but with that comes a pretty high responsibility to manage that appropriately for the good of the wildlife because they're the ones that lose out when these conflicts happen," Badry said.

Cadman said she'd never tell a member of the public to avoid calling BCCOS, but hopes for increased transparency.

"I think the community (is) going to be pushing for those changes as well," she said, adding it's important for people to see these bears as individuals, which is why her agency will sometimes name the ones they encounter.

"Giving the bears value and then identity is working, so we'll continue to do that. We'd love to see the government give them some value too."