A black bear and her cub near Fernie in 2020. Photo: Scott Tibballs

A black bear and her cub near Fernie in 2020. Photo: Scott Tibballs

Nelson bear activity increased in 2021

WildSafeBC co-ordinator points to Pulpit Rock trail as a common site for human-bear interactions

by Timothy Schafer

Local Journalism Initiative reporter

The Nelson Daily

Last year was very active for wildlife and human conflict in Nelson, with bear activity the highest it has been in six years, the WildSafeBC co-ordinator for the Nelson area says.

Rosie Wijenberg said the elements and human habituation drove the increase in Nelson.

“Which we think it was due to the kind of summer we had: there were floods, there was fire, there was also drought, and this led to bear activity to kind of spike locally,” she said in making her annual report to Nelson City Council on March 22.

Drought and smoke combined to contribute to a poor berry crop in the backcountry, so when fall came around the number of bear conflicts spiked, she added.

Wijenberg noted that cougar activity was low, which wasn’t apparent since there were a couple of high profile cases around Pulpit Rock. However, grizzly bear conflicts were slightly higher with a couple of incidents at Kokanee Creek Park that were “worrisome,” she said.

“So, generally, overall it was a higher wildlife activity year for conflict.”

The main focus of the WildSafeBC program is habituation, when wild animals lose their fear of humans and tolerate them at a closer distance.

“And, as we live close to the wildlife around here, that happens quite often,” said Wijenberg.

The second focus is human food conditioning.

“When people leave out food for the animals they learn to come close to us because they know there is food near us, and that leads to human-wildlife contact,” she said.

Garbage was once again the biggest attractant for bears.

“And that’s always more prevalent in the more urban areas, but fruit trees were also a problem in Nelson, but this year compost was a huge issue, especially around Rosemont,” said Wijenberg. “There were a couple of bears in Rosemont (last year) that really loved compost.

“We don’t usually recommend even that people have to put away their compost. First we try and get them to alter the materials or really look after them, but last year we actually recommended to people that they put it away because the bears had really learned that it where there was compost, there was food.”

Bird feeders and outdoor freezers were also red-flagged in 2021.

“We had a lot of bears going onto patios for bird feeders,” said Wijenberg.

WildSafeBC mounted several education programs in response, but it was limited by the pandemic.

North Shore nuisance?

There was a lot of wildlife conflict reported on some of the North Shore trails this year.

Wijenberg set up on-site at Pulpit Rock trail and did bear spray training on demand talking to people as they went up, offering bear aware education.

“Most people are going up there without any bear spray and just coming in with a casual attitude, but there are constantly bears on that trail,” she said. “And while those bears are somewhat habituated and are used to people, there have been instances, particularly with mothers and cubs and dogs, of aggression.”

There is a need to keep people aware that, even when they are just going up to Pulpit Rock, they are going into the wilderness, said Wijenberg.

Keeping the balance

There are also some Nelson-specific challenges, Wijenberg said, such as balancing local food production with wildlife conflict concerns.

A repeated request by Nelsonites to keep backyard chickens has failed every time it has come before council because of the simple fact that bears — so numerous at the edge of Nelson — love chicken feed.

The only way that WildSafeBC recommended having chickens in the city was with electric fencing, said Wijenberg, and Nelson has a bylaw against electrified fences.

Some people still leave garbage outside of their home, and fruit tree management is always an issue in Nelson, getting people to pick their fruit.

“People think it is still really cute to see the bears in their trees and they don’t understand what a problem they can be,” she said.

People moving here from urban areas aren’t necessarily used to living with bears in their back yards, Wijenberg said. A lot of time the initial reaction to seeing a bear could be very dramatic when wildlife is coming around

“So, there is a lot teaching (necessary) around living with these animals by not leaving out attractants,” she said. “The bear is going to do what the bear is going to do, and reframing it so those new residents understand that it is their job to manage their attractants.”

Rats are everywhere

Councillor Cal Renwick asked Wijenberg to give a quick synopsis about the rat problem in Nelson, and was it better, the same or worse.

“I would say it is about the same. It’s everywhere and they are everywhere,” she explained. “For a while we were mapping (the rats) where they were happening, but that kind of just became not a useful thing anymore because they were just everywhere in Nelson.”

Getting people to manage their compost is a really big issue in controlling the rat population, Wijenberg stated.