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Record bear deaths in BC: Activists call for conservation officers to wear body cameras

In light of recently published statistics on the number of black bears destroyed by the BC Conservation Officer Service last year, advocates are renewing their calls for greater accountability of COS officers.

A total of 603 black bears were destroyed by the service in 2023, the highest count since the Province began keeping record in 2011. Still, it’s not too far off base from a typical year, according to Lesley Fox, executive director of the Fur-Bearers, a charity that advocates for peaceful human-animal coexistence.

“The average number of black bears killed [annually] by the BC Conservation officer service is around 500,” Fox said.

She said a number of factors can contribute to increases in bear-human encounters — climate change causes drought and wildfires, which may encourage bears to forage for food closer to towns and villages. Also, widespread failure to secure attractants like garbage and pet food may draw bears into human areas.

Mollie Cameron, a wildlife specialist at Pacific Wild — an organization that has been calling for conservation officers to wear body cameras since 2019 — agreed that public education is a crucial step in lowering the number of black bears destroyed.

“We need to provide better public education so the public can better understand wildlife, and potentially redirect some resources into issuing fines towards attractants, rather than using lethal measures towards animals,” she said.

<who> Photo credit: LJI/Abigail Popple </who> On average, the BC Conservation Officer Service has destroyed 512.6 bears province-wide per year over the past ten years. In 2023, 603 bears were killed – the highest number since the Province started recording bear deaths in 2011.

The Conservation Officer Service falls under the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. The Goat reached out to the ministry’s media relations for comment, but was unable to arrange an interview. However, the ministry sent an email statement which also emphasized the importance of securing attractants.

“Garbage continues to be a significant cause of human-wildlife conflict and the unfortunate result of bears being put down to ensure public safety,” reads the statement.

Additionally, environmental factors such as habitat loss and climate change-induced food scarcity may be driving bears to enter more human communities, the ministry said. Provincial wildlife biologists and other experts are currently researching these causes, it added.

“Regardless of the causes, once a bear finds easily obtainable non-natural food sources, it is no longer a candidate for rehabilitation or relocation and must be put down to keep the public safe,” the ministry said in its statement.

Wildlife advocates take issue with this characterization. Fox said phrases like “put down” or “euthanize” obscure the various reasons a bear might be destroyed.

“The word euthanasia is very specific to preventing suffering, and we know that out of those 600 bears, the majority of them weren’t particularly suffering. They were probably just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said.

To Fox, bear deaths are the consequence of failures on multiple levels of policy making and enforcement. While Conservation officers are meant to be law enforcement, she worries that their job has become more akin to pest control in recent years.

“They chase around garbage bears, or that’s what the optics are. And there’s no front-loading of things like prevention, education, accountability, transparency. We go round and round and round every year and it needs to stop. It’s such a waste,” she said.

Fox believes that a fundamental change in attitude towards wildlife is necessary for humans and bears to coexist peacefully.

“We have a government that does not value wildlife, period. They do not value individual animals, period,” she said. “Wildlife are perceived to be a natural resource that is to be managed [...] And it’s a very colonial way of thinking.”

<who> Photo credit: 123RF

Likewise, Cameron maintains that peaceful human-bear coexistence should be the goal.

“We are continuing to build our homes on top of [bear] homes,” she said. “My take is that coexistence is reasonable. We can implement more time and resources into those proactive measures, and make use of every non-lethal avenue available to safeguard these animals from harm.”

High numbers of bear deaths are eroding public trust in the Conservation Service, Cameron said, which is part of the reason Pacific Wild is advocating for officers to wear body cameras. Such cameras would allow for third-party oversight where there currently is none, Pacific Wild organizers have said.

Fox agrees that more accountability for officers is an important step in reducing bear deaths.

“Just like regular police, when you have what is believed to be an excessive use of force, which is arguably what we’re seeing, naturally questions arise,” she said. “Calls for more transparency, whether that’s body cameras, independent oversight, involvement of third parties to properly assess the animal’s health – I think all of these things are very reasonable measures.”

Valemount and McBride have seen very few bears destroyed in recent years. Since 2015, only four bears have been killed by Conservation in Valemount, while two have been killed in McBride, according to data the Fur-Bearers obtained via access to information request. Region-specific numbers are not available on the Province’s website, and The Goat was not able to obtain data for the number of black bears destroyed in the area over the course of 2023. But without a significant effort on the part of policymakers, Fox fears that the annual number of bears destroyed throughout the province will continue to climb.

“There’s a lot of things at play with these statistics, but it really should concern everyone because, in the most basic way, it means we’re failing. Education is failing, enforcement is failing,” Fox said. “We’re wasting a lot of time and money and going in circles, but black bears are a normal, natural part of the landscape in BC. They belong here.”

In its email to The Goat, the Ministry did not disclose whether policy changes are forthcoming, given last year’s record-high bear deaths. However, it did say that public education efforts will persist.

“We continue to work with communities to help people reduce food and garbage outdoors, which attracts bears,” said a statement contributed by the Prince George COS. “This also includes working with bylaw services to increase enforcement and mitigate public safety risks.”

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