British Columbia conservation officials killed record number of black bears in 2023

Pacific Wild is calling for independent oversight from British Columbia conservation officials after a record 603 black bears were killed last year.

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Bears will soon emerge from hibernation and environmental groups fear British Columbia conservation officials will kill more this year than last.

Pacific Wild, a conservation group calling for independent oversight for B.C.’s Conservation Officer Service, says climate change, low snowpack, drought and an early wildfire season will likely force black bears closer to communities in search of food and shelter, especially the most vulnerable, such as mothers and cubs or older bears.

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In 2023, British Columbia conservation officials killed a record 603 black bears. compared to 493 the previous year, according to provincial data.

So far this year, five black bears have been killed, Pacific Wild says.

“I think the most important thing people need to know is that these bears are not an animal to be feared,” said Ellie Lamb, a wildlife advisor with Pacific Wild and a long-time bear guide in British Columbia.

“They are altruistic, they build relationships. They come to our community, they want to get along. It’s in their best interest to get along. “If they were not intelligent and strategic animals, they would not be alive today.”

Lamb said most of the black bears killed last year were in the Prince George area and many of them were fleeing wildfires. She said they come to communities seeking safety and then are shot dead by conservation officers.

“The public doesn’t want to continue seeing these animals being shot out of trees and their cubs killed… it’s just incredible the trauma that community members have had to endure seeing, you know, military-style weapons moving around their community”.

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In British Columbia, the mandate of conservation officers is governed by the police law but, unlike police officers, there is no independent oversight agency to hold them accountable for their actions.

Lamb said conservation officials kill bears because they consider them a threat to public safety, but he said it’s unfair to kill an animal when it hasn’t hurt anyone.

“They are big, yes, they can cause damage, but they rarely do.”

Four years ago, the group suggested that COS officers wear body cameras and today members are renewing that call, something the government says it is considering.

The Conservation Officer Service said this week that officers are open to finding new ways to ensure they have the trust of the people and communities they serve.

“We are monitoring police agencies across Canada that are conducting pilot projects to see if (body cameras) could be an effective tool to support conservation officers in law enforcement work,” the COS said. in a statement sent by email.

The office also said it is confident that conservation officers have the training necessary to make difficult decisions when it comes to public safety.

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Holly Reisner, co-executive director of the North Shore Black Bear Society, said that while they are not advocating for body cameras, they do want to see staffing issues at the COS addressed and more training provided on the biology of the animals.

This year, the supply of snow and water is lower than the yearly average. Specifically for bears, drought conditions can affect food supplies, according to British Columbia’s Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Management.

To reduce the potential for conflict, the ministry asks the public not to feed or provide water to wildlife.

“When bears become conditioned to eating unnatural foods and show minimal fear of people, they are no longer candidates for rehabilitation or relocation, as the risk to public safety is simply too great,” the ministry said.

But Lamb maintains that this narrative puts the blame on residents and that many of the bears being killed at their discretion are not a threat to public safety, especially the cubs. Orphaned puppies should be taken to rehabilitation centers and not “shot in ditches,” she added.

The COS says it helped transfer 61 black bear cubs to permitted breeding facilities in British Columbia last year.

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Attractant management plays an important role in coexistence, but should not be consistently used as justification for killing bears, Lamb added.

Reisner agreed, adding that better education is needed on how to live with black bears and reduce fear of them.

She said these efforts are working on the North Shore, noting that no bears were shot last year for behavioral problems in the area. For that, she credits the collaborative effort with her organization, the COS, and the public.

Her group is funded in part by the municipality, but she would like to see more support from the province. They give presentations at schools and go door to door in the community to educate people.

“I feel like once you start to really get to know these animals, you can let go of a lot of the fear that people have of them and build empathy for them,” she said.

“What we found on the North Shore and in conversations with our COs is that they are not interested in pursuing bears that get into trash and other attractants, they are really only concerned when a bear does something like break into the house of a person. “

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They had four bears that needed to be euthanized because they were sick or hungry, but he said that’s a separate issue from shooting bears because of a perceived threat to safety.

In 2023, the COS received more than 27,000 calls related to black bears.

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