Prince George is seeing an extreme number of black bears — even for this time of year when they must fatten up for winter.
But with more sightings have come more complaints and, consequently, more bears killed by conservation officers.
That’s causing some residents to ask if they should call authorities at all, even though officials say it is important to report all aggressive or “conflict” bears.
The northern city saw a “marked increase” in bear reports this past month, according to the B.C. Conservation Officer Service (BCCOS).
August saw 2,241 complaints about bears, leading to 36 bears being killed, the agency told CBC News.
By comparison, not a single bear was killed in Prince George in August 2022, BCCOS said.
In just the first week of September, there were 160 calls in the city and two bears killed.
One of those was in Corey Hardeman’s neighbourhood in the north end.
“There’s been a bear in our yard almost every day,” the painter and educator told CBC News. “There are bears right in the middle of town … I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Because one of Hardeman’s neighbours had unpicked apples, there’s been a steady stream of hungry bears. On Sept. 1, she said, a conservation officer tranquillized a black bear in a tree between their yards.
“The bear fell out of the tree, ran through my backyard into the neighbour’s on the other side, blundering around,” Hardeman recalled, “and then we heard the shot.”
She said seeing a healthy, young bear killed was “pretty upsetting.”
A risk to public safety
Experts say the best thing people can do to protect bears from being killed is not to attract them in the first place.
That means securing trash until garbage day, removing bird and pet food, harvesting all fruit and berries, and cleaning barbecues.
But BCCOS urged people who see any aggressive bear behaviour to contact them, because the animal can become a danger to the public.
“To ensure public safety, this has resulted in a high number of bears having to be put down,” the agency said.
Once bears become both used to human food and unafraid of people, they can’t be rehabilitated or relocated, the agency explained, “making the risk to public safety simply too great.”
‘Everyone I know leaves them alone’
But a growing number of British Columbians are choosing not to report bears they see, and leaving them alone if they aren’t posing a threat.
Hardeman has effectively adopted a “no-snitching” policy.
“I have great respect for Conservation Officers,” she said. “I don’t fault people for calling [BCCOS] … but I’ve never called a Conservation Officer and I have difficulty imagining a situation in which I would.
“Everyone I know leaves them alone.”
She and her friends instead rely on word-of-mouth to warn each other to bring pets and children inside.
“In my neighborhood, we don’t say ‘Hi’ to each other anymore,” she joked. “We just say, ‘Did you see that bear in the driveway around the corner? Just be careful!”
People learning to co-exist with the animals is happening across B.C.
Some towns have Facebook groups where bear sightings are frequently reported — and people being called out for bad bear behaviour.
“This is something that we’ve noticed for a while and have been aware of here,” said Maggie Spizzirri, community co-ordinator of Revelstoke Bear Aware Society.
“I don’t know if it would say there’s a culture of no snitching … there’s definitely a culture of not wanting the bears to get killed.”
This week, the small Kootenay city in the Interior, about 197 kilometres northeast of Kelowna, has also seen a spike in bear sightings.
But in 2016, after 26 bears were killed in town, the community rallied — with more teaching on how to be “bear smart,” Spizzirri said, as well as a fruit-gleaning program to collect unused attractants which are then donated to people in need.
Some of the fruit was even fermented into a popular local brandy, with the proceeds raising money for bear awareness.
On Saturday, her organization hosted a public event downtown as part of the efforts.
Helping both bears, humans
Protecting bears’ wider landscape — keeping forests and watersheds healthy — is also important to keeping bears healthy, said UBC Okanagan associate biology professor Adam Ford, Canada research chair in wildlife restoration ecology.
“Certainly I have heard of people being reluctant to even report — let alone call the conservation officers to help them with a bear — I’ve heard that across this province,” he said.
But conservation officers take those actions to protect public safety … because there’s a legitimate threat that that bear could harm somebody. “
Simply letting food-habituated bears roam the streets eating non-natural food may just “kick the can further down the road,” he cautioned.
“Take action on your own backyard, help your neighbours better co-exist with species like bears, and take care of the landscape in a better way,” he said.
“That’ll help both bears and humans.”