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Wildlife biologist surprised at number of bears in Prince George

Early ripening of berries this summer could be reason why so many black bears feeding on residential fruit and garbage bin scraps

Bear sightings close to populated areas are up this summer in many parts of the province but a wildlife biologist says he’s as surprised as local conservation officers are at the sheer numbers showing up in Prince George.

Garth Mowat, a large carnivore biologist for the Ministry of Forests wildlife and habitat branch, says the early ripening of the berry crop, which is the usual food source for bears, has dried up quicker than usual in our hot and dry summer. That might be why bears are being drawn into the city to feed on fruit trees and garbage bins to fatten up for their winter hibernation.

But he doesn’t know for sure if that’s why we have so many bear visitors.

“The berry crop does seem earlier for most berries and that might line up with why you’re seeing more bears in Prince George now than in September when it’s more typical, but I’m not convinced that’s the case because there’s awful lot of berries out in the bush still,” said Mowat, who is based in Nelson.

“Maybe they are drying up at the lower elevations and that’s moving the black bears into town. They ripen first at the lower elevations and ripen last at the highest elevations which are not available to black bears, by and large, because it’s grizzly bears that use those high-elevation open berry patches. Around Prince George you don’t have those higher elevations (above 5,000 feet), so when the berry crop dries then they definitely have to switch to a different food. ”

While berries and apples provide sugars bears love to eat, they also need protein in their diet to store enough fat to last through the den hibernation period in their dens, usually from November-March, when they don’t eat, urinate or defecate. Some bears can eat enough fat in one month to last them the entire year. They can become extremely obese and have physiological adaptations that allow them to tolerate high levels of cholesterol in their blood with no ill effects. Black bears typically live at least 20 years and some survive up to 30 years

To get the protein they need they eat ants, grubs and other bugs which they find in broken stumps or logs. Because fruit contains virtually no protein they look to other readily available protein sources which they find in residential garbage bins.

“There’s a lot of good research to show bears go and eat garbage reluctantly,” said Mowat.

“We think a garbage bear is a garbage bear forever, well a lot of bears aren’t. When they become habituated and conditioned to human foods and that’s all, there’s really little you can do to convince the bear to stop doing that. They won’t, they’ll just keep trying, but that’s a relatively small portion of the bears.”

Through the first three weeks of August, conservation officers euthanized 21 bears in Prince George that were showing aggressive behaviour towards humans. Last year in August there were none that had to be killed. Over the past two years the city ranked as the most deadliest in B.C. for black bears, with 33 killed in 2021 and 36 killed in 2022.

Mowat advises city residents to take away all attractants for bears such as fruit, birdfeeders, garbage bins, barbecue grills and don’t keep fridges or freezers in outdoor areas.

Black bear attacks on humans are rare, but with so many bears encroaching on city neighbourhoods the potential is there. Mowat says an attacking bear moves with surprising speed and he suggests bear spray as the best defence. Bear bangers that produce a loud noise or canned air-horn are unlikely to drive off a habituated bear.

“We recommend bear spray for safety because it’s very easy to use,” said Mowat. “You don’t have to know how to shoot a gun and you won’t kill anybody else if you aim in the wrong direction and it’s not deadly.”

But make sure you know which way the wind is blowing.

“It could cause you quite a lot of pain if the wind is wrong; bear spray is extremely painful and that’s why it works so well.”

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