British Columbia

Berries, human food enticing East Kootenay grizzlies to their deaths

A University of Alberta study says human development plus an abundance of fruit in the East Kootenay region of B.C. is creating a death trap for grizzly populations.

Bears lured by the abundance of fruit and other foods near human settlements often end up killed

A new University of Alberta study says the abundance of buffalo berries — like the kind this grizzly is eating — in the resource-rich Elk Valley means grizzly bears are increasingly encroaching on local towns and falling victim to human-caused deaths. (Alex Taylor/Parks Canada)

A new University of Alberta study has found the Elk Valley in the East Kootenay has effectively become a death trap for B.C.'s grizzlies.

The study found the bears are attracted to the valley because of the huckleberries and buffalo berries that grow in abundance.

The problem is the nutrient-dense Elk Valley contains a number of small towns including Jaffray, Fernie, Elkford and Sparwood, explained study author and PhD candidate Clayton Lamb.

When the bears come into contact with human settlements, they put themselves at greater risk of mortality.

"In the last month, we actually had five grizzly bears killed by non-hunting sources," Lamb explained. "It's quite a large portion of the population."

In fact, the study found bears in the region had a 17 per cent lower survival rate.

A bear death trap

The issue doesn't stop there.

When the bears die, Lamb explained, the reduced bear population in the area make it attractive for other grizzlies to come in and access easy food.

"The bears are looking for food ... [but] there's a mismatch between food and mortality."

He said bears flowing into the valley are effectively marching into a trap.

Possible solutions

Lamb's study is based on eight years of grizzly data from the region, and he said the data shows nearly 40 per cent of grizzlies that have wandered into the area have died.

University of Alberta PhD candidate Clayton Lamb is studying grizzly populations in the Elk Valley in the East Kootenay. Lamb analyzed eight years of grizzly data in the area and found a significantly higher mortality rate for bears in the area. (Laura Smit)

While the grizzly hunt is one contentious cause of death, Lamb found 70 per cent of deaths in the region were caused by non-hunting reasons.

Non-hunting deaths — like those caused by road, rail and human-bear interactions — are harder to regulate and will require much more education and behavioural adjustments, he said.

"These are pervasive problems that require quite a bit more effort on the side of the government, the people and the community."

Lamb said preserving wild habitat, using electric fencing, keeping people out of the backcountry and equipping people with non-lethal bear management tools like bear spray are some of the ways to reduce bear mortality.

With files from The Early Edition

To hear the interview, click on the link labelled Human expansion has increased grizzly mortality, researcher says