After years of chowing down on generous helpings of dog food, a group of bears that make their home near Christina Lake, B.C., are about to get their kibble kiboshed.
Ordered by the provincial government, the change in diet will take place in stages between now and mid-November in an attempt to save the bears, who faced relocation or worse after they were discovered in July hanging around a rural site that was also home to more than 1,000 marijuana plants.
The idea is to gradually reduce the food given to the 17 black bears in the hope that they will head to the bush to forage and hunt and pack on the weight needed to survive winter hibernation.
The people assigned to dole out the reduced helpings could still be charged under the provincial Wildlife Act for feeding the bears – and could also face charges of cultivating marijuana.
“It’s an unusual situation that has forced us to consider an unusual solution,” B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner said on Tuesday, adding that conservation officers considered several alternatives, including relocating the bears.
But relocation is expensive, time-consuming and doesn’t always work. There are about 160,000 black bears in British Columbia, and their territory stretches into every corner of the province, including urban areas where backyard fruit trees can be magnets for the hungry omnivores and homeowners are warned that “a fed bear is a dead bear.”
“It’s well documented that a large dominant black bear can and will kill an interloper bear that comes into its territory,” Mr. Penner said. “Because they are protecting their food source – it’s a matter of life and death. It’s not as easy as in a Disney movie to relocate them.”
RCMP officers came across the bears on July 30 when they were dismantling a marijuana grow operation. The bears were docile and appeared unfazed by the police presence.
As intimidating guards, the pot bears were a bust. As photogenic folk heroes, however, they were a sensation. A Facebook group was launched to support the bears and oppose any talk of killing them. (Killing the bears would be a last resort, considered only if the animals became a risk to humans, Mr. Penner said.)
It’s hoped that reducing the bears’ food in stages will encourage them to seek food elsewhere and fade into the forest in time for hibernation. Bears need to pack on weight for the winter, and if they don’t get sufficient food, may not survive.
“We didn’t want to go cold turkey, because you don’t want to have bears that are getting so desperate and so hungry that they become dangerous,” Mr. Penner said.
In a video posted on the video-sharing site Vimeo, a man who identifies himself as Allen Piche says he has been feeding the bears for about 10 years, with no problems for him or his neighbours.
He also thanked the public for its support.
“When I was presenting my case for saving the bears, I was able to use this as something to help people make their decision a little easier,” he says in the video, adding: “We want a happy ending here.”
Penalties under the Wildlife Act for feeding animals range from a small fine to up to 12 months in jail.
The province relocated 68 black bears and seven grizzlies last year. The Christina Lake bears are believed to include at least some that are related, Mr. Penner said, suggesting that parents have introduced their offspring to the concept of a free lunch.
“It just really underscores why people should resist the temptation to feed wildlife,” he said. “You may think you’re doing them a favour, but that’s very short term benefit if in the long run they become addicted to handouts and become a risk to the public.”