Addressing a Culture of Fear: Learning to Coexist in Grizzly Country

October 26, 2018 13 Comments

(Updated Oct 29, 2018).

A video of a man shooting a grizzly bear with birdshot in Bella Coola, BC, has gone viral.  The video has content that could be upsetting to viewers, but can be viewed here:

Many of us have grown up pre conditioned to fear bears. This message is still being promoted in pop culture (with brutal scenes from The Revenant with Leonardo Dicaprio jumping to mind).

The Revenant - Leonardo Dicaprio grizzly bear scene

Because of this fear, media love to report on human-bear interaction - and this story has been reported as far away as the NY Post. One journalist going as far as calling the Bella Coola bear ‘evil’. We highly doubt that a mama bear with three cubs are evil, but they certainly should be respected.

Moving past this culture of fear is what is needed to be safe in bear country and coexist with this species, ultimately ensuring both people and bears can coexist.

Bella Coola is a hotspot for human-bear interaction, with an abundant black and grizzly bear population. The Michalchuk family had a grizzly mama with three cubs frequenting the mountain ash berry trees in their yard, and despite the work they put into managing these attractants they weren’t enough to deter the bears from returning.

After three days of visits from the bear family Michalchuk felt he had no choice but to try to defend his property, as he was concerned about the safety of his family. That fear is real and valid. His solution was to use birdshot to scare the bear away, first shooting into the air, and then walking towards the bear with his dog to urge her away. But fear is a two way street - this distressed the mother, and in defense of her cubs, she charged. Michalchuk reacted by shooting again, this time directly at her, which caused her to lose her footing and tumble, and provide him the opportunity to take refuge inside his house.

Update: For rural residents in areas like Bella Coola a conservation officer is often hours away, but luckily in this case, there are two Conservation Officers in town and also a local Wild Safe coordinator (though they do not provide a service to react to wildlife calls).

This was obviously a dangerous situation for both Michalchuk and the bear family. While it is difficult to weigh our thoughts and actions when we feel under threat, this situation could have been handled differently for the safety of both parties.

Birdshot is a poor deterrent and dangerous for bears

An understanding of bear behavior and the effectiveness of bear spray, as a superior deterrent than a gunshot, would have helped Michalchuk in this situation.

Birdshot is a cluster of hundreds of small metal pellets packed into a single shotgun shell. Wildlife veterinarian Dr Ken Macquisten tells us, “the use of birdshot to discourage predators and scavengers to chase wildlife off of property is not as innocuous for large animals as many people assume. The pellets can and do penetrate body parts. The result is extreme pain for the animal that can last many days. Pellets can lodge in joint spaces and cause ongoing discomfort, and in some cases result in a protracted death due to infection from the penetrating wounds.”

Bear spray, on the other hand, is not harmful to bears, and is 98% effective in stopping unwanted bear behaviour without causing an increase in aggression. It is a far safer alternative to check a charge and deter the bear from coming back, for both the person and the bear involved.

Understand bear behavior reduces conflicts

CTV news quotes Michalchuk as saying that “... bears in the area have become more comfortable with humans because of the rising popularity of bear tourism in the region.” This seems to be an opinion. In this case, the more likely reason the bears were visiting  this man’s yard was the presence of a food source, mountain ash berry.

Ultimately, if we do not want bears in our backyards, it is our responsibility to ensure they are not tempted to be there. Bears have a right to be on the landscape, just as humans do, and we cannot expect them to disappear. This a challenge when bear habitat and communities overlap. Bella Coola is lucky to have a WildSafeBC coordinator in town, helping people to understand their role in wildlife coexistence, but there is still a long way to go before residents view bears as neighbours to be respected but not feared.

If you live in or near  grizzly bear habitat, ensure you are managing your attractants so bears are not tempted into your yard. We recommend carrying bear spray, keeping it accessible, and knowing how to use it. Respect the bear, and allow them the space they need.

The more we understand about bear behaviour and coexistence techniques, the better we will be to adapt to each other's habits. Living in Canada and having a close relationship with nature go hand in hand. If we want to maintain that relationship, we’re the ones that will need to do the heavy lifting to make it possible.

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13 Responses

Cas
Cas

October 31, 2018

Habituated bears are much safer than fear pumped bears. This bear and its cubs will now probably hate and fear humans where they will charge in self defense.

Grizzly Bear Foundation
Grizzly Bear Foundation

October 29, 2018

Thanks for all comments. We have updated the story to reflect the comments about the Conservation Officers. This story and the comments we hear make it clear that coexistence is a many-layered issue that does not have an easy solution.

Deanna adams
Deanna adams

October 29, 2018

Anyone knows you don’t mess with any wild animal with babies they will protect their young

Kevin ONeill
Kevin ONeill

October 29, 2018

To correct one bit of misinformation, Bella Coola has a conservation officer as of July 2018 as well as a local back up. I’ve lived in the Bella Coola valley for forty years, raising a family in a part of the valley that is frequented by grizzly bears throughout the summer and fall. I’ve never owned a firearm, and yet have a large orchard and two garden plots that often put me in direct contact with bruins intent on an apple or a carrot.
Information and technical assistance are available here for people who want to protect these gardens, orchards and property. Electric fences have come a long way, and are very effective deterrents nowadays. But bears can be annoyingly persistent, and the CO is available to assist if necessary. What the video above shows is exactly how NOT to deal with a problem grizzly. Aggressive behavior on the part of any homeowner is likely to provoke a similar response from a mother trying to protect her cubs, and this is regrettably evident in this video. I trust that our CO will communicate to Mr. Michalchuk how he must behave in the future.
And as to using birdshot, this only puts others at risk from a sow that is now in a wounded and even more aggressive state…it is the height of irresponsible action in my opinion.We can co-exist with bears, and the recent dramatic increase in bear viewing here suggests that the rest of the province and the country want us to do so. Accepting the help and support that has been made available makes us all safer in the end, both humans and bears.

Lorri Tuck
Lorri Tuck

October 29, 2018

I am not sure of your experience with bears, but I do know in this case bear spray would not have stopped her. Birdshot may not have been the best option. I have lived here all of my 57 years, also my father of 80 & his parents before him. what is happening with the encounters here inthe valley is not the norm. We have always had a bear population here it was normal with few encounters. Now with No human population increase, the population of bears is exploding. There is no room for respect between us. There is no harmony and with the “fear” you talk about may be you should do more research. Even https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_Treadwell can’t back his story of coexisting successfully.

Candice Hammer
Candice Hammer

October 29, 2018

You cite a 20 year old paper as your proof that bear spray is a better deterrent than bird shot, but in Lawrence’s case, with a Grizzly running at him at top speed (and hoping that the canister actually worked – and that the wind worked in his favour), the bear still would have barrelled directly into him.
You claim that it is Lawrence’s “opinion” that bear tourism has caused bears to become comfortable with humans, then without ANY research you blame it on food sources like Mountain Ash berries – complete conjecture!
Come to the Valley – talk to the people, see what is going on for yourself, because I guarantee, no matter what “side” of the issue you are on, everyone agrees that the people / bear relationship in the valley has greatly changed in the past 20 years.

Candice Hammer
Candice Hammer

October 29, 2018

You cite a 20 year old paper as your proof that bear spray is a better deterrent than bird shot, but in the Lawrence’s case, with a Grizzly running at him at top speed (and hoping that the bear spray can actually worked – and the wind worked in his favour) the bear still would have barrelled directly into him.

Candice Hammer
Candice Hammer

October 29, 2018

Maybe you should come to the Valley, walk the forests or the river with some bear spray, and see how safe you feel.
You should invest in a fact checker, as your statement about the closest permanent CO being in Williams Lake is false; a quick phone call to any local and you would know that we have a CO living here full time.
I’m curious to see if you actually post comments, or if you’re only interested in posting your own perspective, as bias and incorrect as it is.

Claudette DuBois
Claudette DuBois

October 29, 2018

Bears are never a problem. People and guns are a problem

Claudette  DuBois
Claudette DuBois

October 29, 2018

I lived with bears for nearly fifty years. Beautiful up watch and enjoy. Never a problem. Except for an occasional overturned garbage can.

Claudette  DuBois
Claudette DuBois

October 29, 2018

I lived with bears for nearly fifty years. Beautiful up watch and enjoy. Never a problem. Except for an occasional overturned garbage can.

Jeff R.
Jeff R.

October 29, 2018

Just as an FYI – there is a full time CO in Bella Coola as of this summer…

Jefferson Bray
Jefferson Bray

October 29, 2018

False. Bella Coola has two Conservation Officers employed and living here.
Generations of ‘food conditioned’ bears “baited” to this Valley by a Government enabled ‘culture’ of abuse. Only months ago a Ministry of Environment employee was tee’d up by a mother grizzly under an illegal, fruit laden cherry tree. Meanwhile just down the same road, responsible farmers produced ~3000 kgs (3+ tons) of blueberries behind an electric fence with zero bear issues.
At what point does the Gov’t recognize an enabled ‘culture’ of abuse and address it? When will the BC Wildlife Act be amended to address irresponsible human behaviour and give proactive, preventive enforcement powers to the Conservation officers Service for the safety, security and betterment of our communities? Is the COS insisting on required changes to their reactive, conflict ensuring model? There is far more to this story, but let’s wait for the COS ‘official’ report and final body count.

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