Edmonton

Black bears scavenging empty Fort McMurray

The list of challenges facing Fort McMurray evacuees when they go home is a long one. Now it looks like they will have to add a four-legged bother to that list: bears.

'The absence of people may actually embolden these bears to be in places they haven't been before'

Fish and Wildlife officers are patrolling neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray looking for signs of bear activity. (CBC)

The list of challenges facing Fort McMurray evacuees when they return home is a long one. 

Now it looks like they will have to add a four-legged bother to that list: black bears.

For weeks now, thousands of houses have sat empty soaking in the heat. Food in the homes have been rotting, sending off strong aromas to the creatures who just had their habitat destroyed by the wildfire and the bears have been making their way to the city.

Now, they've had free rein and may actually have become entitled.- Lee Foote

Lee Foote, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Alberta, said that Fort McMurray is a "bear aware" city.

But right now, the relative emptiness may cause the animals to roam further into the city than they normally would to scavenge. 

"The absence of people may actually embolden these bears to be in places they haven't been before and possibly habituate to garbage more readily than in previous times," said Foote.

"Now, they've had free rein and may actually have become entitled."

Currently, Fish and Wildlife officers are patrolling neighbourhoods looking for signs of bear activity. If they find any signs traps will be set and the bear will be removed from the area. 

Lee Foote said the relative emptiness of the city right now may cause the animals to roam further into the city than they normally would. (University of Alberta)

Foote said when people return, some bears will instinctively leave as humans act as a natural deterrent, but it's the animals that have been habituated that worry Foote.

"I worry about the second generation of bears. Cubs that are with their mom come out and learn about this free smorgasbord and they may have it imprinted in their mind 'Well, we'll seek out this food next year,'" he said. 

"It's really hard to untrain a garbage eating dog, a garbage eating bear, an aggressive dog, an aggressive bear and we might not have the time or the resources to do it."

Not just homes

It's not just residents of Fort McMurray that need to be on the lookout for bears but people working in the industrial area as well. 

Dan LeGrandeur is the founder of Bear Scare, a company that provides education and animal deterrent tactics for businesses working in the oil sands. 

He expects industry will see more bears.

"They have come a long way in the last couple of years of controlling their attractiveness ... but they can certainly expect an increase, how dramatic is unknown, but they can certainly expect an increase in conflicts."

Bear Scare was started by Dan LeGrandeur after 17 years of working with BC Conservation. (Supplied)

In 2014, a Suncor employee was killed by a bear at the company's Oil Sands base, 25 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

LeGrandeur said his company uses non-lethal aversion conditioning to keep the bears away.

Due to the loss of habitat LeGrandeur said he anticipates bears that have lost habitat far and wide to make their way to areas not affected by the fire, like the industrial areas.

There is a significant chance that some animals may have to be destroyed by Fish and Wildlife officers.

LeGrandeur said the facilities most likely to be the most impacted by a roving bear population are the ones that are closest to the Athabasca River, as bears use it for food, shelter and as a travel corridor. 

They can certainly expect an increase, how dramatic is unknown, but they can certainly expect an increase in conflicts.- Dan LeGrandeur

For now though, the bears have had their habitat destroyed and are just trying to stay alive. 

"You think of all the abandoned houses and just the rotten food in there and if you are a bear with no suitable food sources and smell the dead rotting meat in a house," LeGrandeur explained.

"They are going to go after the rotten pizza and do everything they can to survive."  

Residents are expected to return to the city starting June 1.

People encountering bears are asked to call the 24-hour Report A Poacher line at 1-800-642-3800.

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