British Columbia

Low salmon returns could hurt B.C. grizzlies

The low returns of some salmon stocks on the West Coast is raising concerns that B.C.'s grizzly population may be going hungry just as the bears need to build up their weight for their winter hibernation.

The apparent collapse of some salmon stocks on the West Coast is raising concerns that B.C.'s grizzly population may be going hungry just as the bears need to build up their weight for their winter hibernation.

The concerns raised by environmentalists have prompted the minister of the environment to ask biologists to redo a grizzly bear survey along the central coast.

Jeffrey Young, a biologist with the David Suzuki Foundation, says at this time of year, the bears are dependent on the return of salmon.

"They know when the salmon are coming," said Young. "They go down to the rivers, find areas where they can get access to them, and they feed on them. And they expect the salmon to come in, and they rely on it to build up the fat stores they need to survive over the winter."

Young says he has heard from guides and environmentalists walking the coastal streams that they are seeing few fish and even fewer bears.

"What we are learning now from the people on the ground there that are walking those streams  ... is that the chum aren't there ... and the bears aren't there," said Young.

This year has seen a virtual collapse of the sockeye stocks in B.C. Earlier this summer, Fisheries officials confirmed the Fraser River sockeye run was down nine million fish from predicted returns, and northern runs have seen similar declines.

Young says returns of chum salmon, a key food source for bears on the central coast, are also down this year.  

B.C. has a stable population of about 16,000 grizzly bears, but when salmon don't show up, the sub-adults and pregnant females pay the price, unable to produce many cubs the following spring.

More information sought

Tom Ethier, the director of the fish and wildlife branch of B.C.'s Environment Ministry, said government biologists are concerned but not alarmed.

"We know there is a strong berry crop along the coast, this year … and it's still a bit early to be coming to these kinds of conclusions that the bear populations are in great trouble along the coast," said Ethier.

A top U.S. biologist agrees, saying he doubts B.C. grizzly bears are starving in large numbers because grizzlies are good at seeking alternate food sources.

Sterling Miller of the University of Idaho, who served on B.C.'s grizzly bear scientific panel a few years ago, said claims by conservationists that grizzlies are dying off are anecdotal at best, and it will take years to see how low salmon runs are affecting the bear population.

Still, Environment Minister Barry Penner has asked his biologists to redo an annual bear survey in the Kimsquit region on the central coast, and the aerial survey will tell the story, Ethier said.

"It's a good survey that provides us with good information on the status of grizzly bears in that particular area that we can extrapolate to other parts of the coast," he said.