B.C. producers are seeing evidence of more grizzly bears, and with that comes growing concerns about the safety of ranching families and their livestock.
George Olin, who ranches in the Vanderhoof, B.C. area, lost several cattle, including a Simmental bull, to grizzlies last fall, Cam Hill writes in the spring issue of Beef in B.C. Hill co-ordinates the BCCA Livestock Protection program, and investigated Olin’s livestock losses, along with a conservation officer. Hill and the conservation officer verified 11 cattle kills between Olin and his neighbours. Additional cattle remained missing. Two grizzlies were killed, and at least three others were suspected of being involved, Hill adds.
Olin, who grew up in the area, recalled that as a kid he would rarely see grizzly bear tracks around the Nechako River, where he often fished with his brother. His parents never lost cattle to grizzly bears, and if a grizzly or even tracks were seen in the area, it was a hot topic of conversation. These days, Olin frequently sees evidence of grizzlies on sandbars, Hill writes. Many other longtime B.C. ranchers also reported observations of growing grizzly numbers. Hill writes that areas that had no grizzlies in the last century now have bears, and areas that had a few bears now have many.
But the B.C. government doesn’t necessarily agree that grizzly bear populations are expanding. Hill quoted a letter from the Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development stating that “the province does not have current data to indicate that there are expanding populations in the province” or in the Nechako Valley, where Olin and his neighbours had lost cattle. The province pegged the grizzly bear population in that area at 2.7 bears per 1,000 square kilometres, which, if correct, would be among the lowest in the province. Hill wonders whether the government has failed to notice a “substantial shift” in numbers and would like to see a more hands-on approach to managing grizzly bear populations.
Whatever the government’s approach, Hill notes that grizzlies remain a risk to ranchers, their families and livestock. On the human-safety front, he recommends people educate themselves about bear behaviour. While the internet contains some helpful advice, people will have to filter out misinformation. Hill suggests reading books on bear behaviour, learning from the mistakes of others and keeping in mind that bears are “complex animals with personalities as diverse as humans.”
As for livestock protection, Hill’s article indicates that the provincial government has little appetite for open range solutions. He does recommend working with local conservation officers on problem bears at an early stage. While the B.C. Wildlife Act does allow people to use lethal force to protect life or property, doing so “comes with baggage,” Hill writes, such as the prospect of a wounded bear or orphaned cubs, as well as reporting requirements.
Hill also suggests removing deadstock when possible. Keep in mind that grizzlies will dig as far down as 10 feet to get at a carcass, so heavy equipment is necessary for burial. Landfills might be an option but may require a Canadian Food Inspection Agency permit for transport. Electric fence can also be effective in some situations, as bears hate shocks. He also suggests deterring bears if you see them near your yard or cattle. Options include using bear bangers, warning shots, or even honking the horn. Despite the jokes you may have heard about hikers and bear bells, Hill does think bells deter both bears and wolves, and often attaches them to several of his own older cows. Hill also suggests patrolling pastures regularly, partly to try to learn the bears’ routines, and partly to establish a human presence.
B.C. producers can contact the conservation officer service RAPP line at 1-877-952-7277. For questions about the BCCA livestock protection program, email Cam Hill at [email protected]. The BCCA also has a toll-free number for reporting livestock losses or harassment due to predators at 1-844-852-5788. You can also visit their website at cattlemen.bc.ca/lpp.htm.