British Columbia

B.C. bears at risk because of a lack of food, wildlife experts say

An early berry season, combined with a low projected salmon run, could drive hungry bears in B.C. into residential areas looking for food, according to wildlife experts.

Early berry season and low salmon run likely to drive bear population down

A conservation group says black bear sightings could increase this fall because of an early berry season. (Michael Penn/Associated Press )

An early berry season, combined with a low projected salmon run, could drive hungry bears in B.C. into residential areas looking for food, according to wildlife experts.

"It's been a good year early on, but a lot of people have been commenting that the berries seem to be early and they're drying up faster," said Frank Ritcey with the B.C. Conservation Foundation. 

Ritcey said bears devour upwards of 20,000 calories a day in the fall as they begin to fatten up for the winter months ahead.

He said so far the early and plentiful berry season has kept interactions between bears and humans in B.C. at a six-year low, but the lack of berries could cause a sharp increase in bear problems heading into the fall.

Barrie Gilbert, a wildlife ecologist who studied bears in B.C. and Alaska for over 20 years, agrees that bears could be more of an issue this year if they don't have enough food.

"When bears are very, very hungry they will take risks to break into places that they normally wouldn't," he said. 

It's also becoming a problem elsewhere in Canada. In Sudbury, Ont, bear calls to police have doubled over the past year because of a weak blueberry harvest throughout the region.

Gilbert said problem bears are often killed because moving them far away is costly and cumbersome. It also puts them in a situation where they're unfamiliar with food sources and likely to be in another bear's territory.

"Euthanizing is the only practical solution, despite how unpopular it is with the public," said Gilbert.

'They would just starve in their dens'

Both of the wildlife specialists agree that bears are highly adaptable animals that can feed on many different kinds of food. 

But it's not just the lack of berries that could pose a challenge for B.C. bears, many of which also rely on salmon for those extra calories.

Scientists have warned that record-warm ocean temperatures pose a threat to B.C. salmon

"That's very hard on the bears," said Gilbert. "[The population] would take a dive."

Gilbert warned that a lack of salmon in particular can be problematic for bears, which need the fat to hibernate for up to six months.

"They would just starve to death in their dens," he said.

Despite the possible hike in deaths, Gilbert explained that bears aren't necessarily at long-term risk. 

"There would be higher mortality but I wouldn't say it would put them at risk," he said. "They go through these cycles quite often."

Gilbert said during tough times pregnant sows will abort their cubs, but most of them will get pregnant again when food is more abundant.

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