British Columbia

'Most dangerous situation I've ever seen': B.C. hot springs closed over food-habituated bears

Bears have grown accustomed to eating food discarded by people at a popular recreation spot northwest of Pemberton.

Next stage 'in terms of bear aggression ... is an attack on people,' official says

Keyhole Falls' hot springs, northwest of Pemberton Meadows and about four hours from Vancouver, has been closed to the public due to aggressive bears in the area. (The Canadian Press)

A popular set of hot springs near Pemberton, B.C., has been closed to the public because of aggressive bears in the area, with officials warning that humans and animals could die if people don't respect the closure.

Keyhole Falls hot springs is northwest of Pemberton Meadows, about four hours from Vancouver. Natural hot tubs are situated along a cool river, surrounded by forest and mountain views. 

The spot attracts visitors year-round. Unfortunately, government officials said too many campers have been irresponsible with food and garbage, which has led to the "dangerous" behaviour from bears.

Government recreation officer Alistair McCrone said there are at least four food-habituated bears near the springs, plus a few cubs. Several people have been charged at by bears this year, and although no one's been hurt, the site was closed on May 10 to keep the public safe.

Asked to describe the situation between bears and people, the officer — who has worked with "problem bears" for nearly 20 years — didn't mince words:

"This is the most dangerous situation I've ever seen. We have a large number of aggressive and dangerous bears in a very confined space ... They are charging people and chasing them until people drop their food and their backpacks, and then they're eating food out of the backpacks. The next stage in the progression here, in terms of bear aggression, is an attack on people."

If people don't obey the closure, McCrone said the consequences could be deadly.

"Say you didn't drop your food. The bear's going to keep coming, smack you around and take your food. You may not survive that. If people get attacked in the area, we're going be forced to shoot the bears — and we're not going to be able to tell which bear to shoot, so we'll have to shoot them all. Cubs won't have a mother and that's up to nine bears dead.

"There's a very, very good reason to stay out of the area."

If people still don't listen, despite all that, the area could be wrecked.

"The government is not prepared to allow a situation where peoples' lives are in danger to exist," said McCrone, who works along the Sea to Sky district.

"If people aren't going to respect the closure, we're going to have to destroy the trail and destroy the tubs — we will remove all of the reasons for people to go there."

McCrone said the spring is being closed for at least two summers, until the bears "forget" about the possibility of food.

Social media hotspot

An Instagram search for Keyhole Hot Springs returns hundreds of photos, proving the locale's popularity. Most are posed shots of visitors lounging in the pools but some show the bears hanging around.

McCrone said visits could be OK down the line, so long as everyone is bear smart.

"When we're dealing with bears and food, we need everyone —100 per cent of the people — behaving properly."

He said it's key that everyone packs out all the supplies they pack in. He also said food needs to be stored properly at campsites, even if you're just leaving for the day.

"Feeding wildlife is not just handing food to wildlife. It's people providing food or garbage that's accessible," he explained. "If you leave your backpack and everything at your tent and you leave and the bear comes and eats your food, you're feeding wildlife. That's an offence."

McCrone said most people have stayed away from Keyhole since it was shut down.

"There's hope the situation will be resolved without the death of any bears and without an attack on humans," the officer said. "So far, the public has been cooperative and we're very grateful for that."

Anyone caught on the trail leading to the springs could be fined $115, and those found near the water could be dinged up to $1,000.