(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).
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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Thank you to all who attended Getting To Know A Canadian Icon: The Grizzly Bear on Wednesday, June 10th. In case you missed some webinar or in case you would like to share the webinar with others, you can view the webinar at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3v9X1mEJX-Q