Man & Beast: Understanding the grizzly bear

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“There’re everywhere!” “The population is exploding!” “I’ve never seen so many before!” “There’re even coming to Vancouver Island now!”

The quotes above are a small sample of what I have heard in the past 24 months when people speak about grizzly bears. I have come across one main argument about grizzly bears which appears to underpin many observations like the ones quoted above. This is the argument, “The grizzly bear population is exploding since the trophy hunt ended in 2017.” In support of this contention individuals offer up accounts of grizzly bears swimming to Vancouver Island, an increase in rural and urban conflicts with grizzly bears, and anecdotal information regarding an increase in sightings. In many cases, this argument is quickly followed by a call to re-open grizzly bear hunting in the name of “safety”. But everything is not what it appears to be. In today’s age of instant gratification and fast food media, we often forget the all to recent past and our own history. So, let’s pause for a moment and take a step back to 2017.

Grizzly bears need protection

In 2017 the trophy hunting of grizzly bears in BC was brought to an end following over a decade of advocacy and scientific work by various organizations. In addition to this, the BC Auditor General released a report the same year which found, among other things, that the government’s management of grizzly bear populations, habitat, and conflict with humans was not meeting auditing expectations for the conservation of the species. The conservation of grizzly bears was raised within the report as a serious concern. It was also noted that the grizzly bear had already been extirpated from many parts of its historical home range. The trophy hunt was ended shortly after.

Bear sightings are dispersion, not inflation

This leaves us with the question, is the bear population exploding since the hunt ended? Simply put, no. However, as a result of continued habitat loss through industrial operations and poor salmon returns, the grizzly bear does move around in search of new food sources and better living conditions. In a nut shell, what we are seeing is population dispersion not population inflation. Why does any of this matter? An understanding of what is happening in our environment can assist us in adding context to what we are seeing, or perceive we are seeing (i.e., “more bears”).

The grizzly bear is a large animal that requires a lot of space to hunt, forage, play, and, well, be a bear. Being a bear, incidentally, includes a substantial amount of simply lumbering around looking for stuff to do and ways to get into trouble. Understanding that the grizzly bear is losing its home range and dispersing into areas that it normally would not go, helps us explain why we are seeing “more” bears. We are seeing more bears because the forest they live in is falling and they are moving around. As the grizzly bear travels, opportunistic feeding on non-natural food sources is always a concern and a reason to keep attractants secured in the urban/greenspace interface. Which brings us to the next issue of the island grizzly bear.

Habitat loss causes bears to flee

Why are grizzly bears showing up on inside passage islands and even Vancouver Island? Because they are excellent swimmers! Contrary to popular belief, large bears have always been dipping their toes on and off the islands. For example, remains of a bear that was roughly 1.5 times bigger than the grizzly bear, the giant short-faced bear (or Arctodus simus), have been found in caves on Vancouver Island and are presumed to be a result of wildlife attempting to escape the last ice age. Although extinct, the remains of the short-faced bear provide some insight into the historical ranges of large bears in BC and their ability to travel, swim, and re-locate for food and habitat. In modern times, though, it’s not as simple as swimming over to Vancouver Island to escape dwindling habitat and food supplies – because it’s disappearing here too.

Next time you see a swimming bear, dear reader, or look out your window across the field and spot a brown bear strolling around, remember the deeper issue that’s driving the walk about – habitat and food loss. As the forest falls and the salmon stop running, the bear will begin to travel. It is a sign that not all is ok. Unlike the last ice age, this modern climate crisis is human caused. When we think about the bear, we need to think about ourselves. When we think about the bear’s behaviour, we need to think about our own human behaviour. Survival for both man and beast is fast becoming a two-way street. To save the bear may very well mean to save our human selves.

Bryce Casavant is a former B.C. Conservation Officer. He is a Doctoral Candidate at Royal Roads University. Bryce recently received fellowship with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for his work, In Search of a Wild Peace. He works as the Conservation Policy Analyst at Pacific Wild and writes from his home on Vancouver Island. You can reach Bryce at: bryce@pacificwild.org

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