This is the story of two young twins, bears that lived in a remote, beautiful and naturally bountiful corner of the world on the Central Coast of British Columbia.
They spent much of their time in the town of Ocean Falls, once a bustling boomtown of 4,000 people which almost became a ghost town in the early 80’s when the pulp mill which was its lifeblood was shut down.
Today the twins share the mostly abandoned town with about 40 people who live here year round and an additional 70 or so people who are summer residents. Most of the houses from boom times were plowed under. Many of the remaining houses are either derelict or rarely used. The old town-site has become overgrown with wild berry bushes.
The Ocean Falls area is mostly very steep and heavily forested. It is within one of the last temperate rainforests on the planet and is appropriately and with respect called “The Great Bear Rainforest”.
Because of the heavy forest cover in the Ocean Falls vicinity, which mostly grows right to the waterline, the town-site is a rarity in its area. The large unused open areas in the townsite grow plentiful wild food attractive to bears and other creatures.
The surroundings of my house are typical of the community. On one side there is a property that has not been used for a number of years and on the other a property that only gets used for brief periods during the summer months. Everywhere here the untended places are totally overgrown with berries.
The berries mostly hide under the leaves so It is difficult to see them from a distance. The photo below shows how abundant the berries are once you look closer.
We also have another attractant for wild animals within our community.
The part of our community called Martin Valley derives its name from the Martin River which runs through it. This river has major Salmon runs and also a population of other species. The fish are a popular food source for the local bears that fatten up on them in order to survive the winter’s hibernation.
Because of the abundant natural food sources within our community we can no more keep wild animals out than we can hold back the tide in our harbor.
Any animals removed will inevitably be replaced by others from outside our immediate vicinity. If people choose to live in such areas they must accept the inevitability of having bears as neighbors. Because of the abundant natural food sources the interaction between bears and people is mostly casual and mutually respectful.
People *do* need to be careful here or they will have uninvited house guests.
The Twins lost their mother in 2006 shortly after they were born. They survived because of the abundant forage to be found here. Life was quite an adventure for them and they could be seen everywhere together. There is wonderful video footage of one of these cubs struggling for about five minutes to take a salmon larger than itself out of the river.
Many in the community got great pleasure from watching the antics of these two clowns.
Usually young bears spend their first winter feeding off their mother. In the fall of 2006 there was much sadness as it was believed these young bears would not survive the winter on their own. There was discussion about shooting the cubs so they would not starve to death during the winter. They were left to their own fate.
During the winter one set of small bear tracks was seen in the snow being followed by a wolf. We assumed nature had taken its course. Spring was very late arriving and everyone had given up on the cubs surviving the winter. In early July we had a pleasant surprise when the cubs arrived to feast on the just ripening berry crop. They were much thinner than in the fall but obviously doing ok.
As you can imagine an area such as this attracts its share of bears. Not all the interactions between bears and people go smoothly. There are no children here for most of the year but for a month or so in the summer there are youngsters that need to be kept safe.
Human garbage is attractive to bears so it is important humans are conscientious about not tempting the bears. We are not perfect so mistakes are made. Occasionally people’s comfort or safety feels threatened by bears that get too familiar for comfort. At such times the community has relied on the services of Conservation Officers to deal with problem bears.
Sadly to date the Conservation Officers have caused more problems than they have resolved. They seem to assume that any bear within the confines of a human community is a problem bear. They don’t seem to understand that our community is a natural part of the local bear’s territory. The vast majority of the bears here have never been a threat to humans. The bears are in our community because of the abundant natural food sources within our community not because they are habituated to or dependent on our garbage as their food source.
Twice a week people set out their garbage to be collected for disposal and sometimes the bears get into the garbage before it is picked up. This is more a nuisance for us than a regular or substantial source of food for the bears. You can tell this from their stool which is composed of berries without plastic from our garbage. The bears are curious and have good noses and will check out items of interest. To avoid problems we as a community need to strive to find better solutions for dealing with our wastes.
Even within our community the issue of bears is contentious. One local went to jail for 8 months for assaulting someone else from the community for shooting a bear on his property. The bear was a trouble free and welcome regular guest on his property and in the berry patch next door. Up until this point the community mostly dealt with bear problems on its own without conservation officers becoming directly involved. Because of the animosity created over this unfortunate incident local people capable of dealing with problem bears became hesitant to take on the responsibility and subsequently conservation officers took direct responsibility.
The times the conservation officers were here they proceeded to kill all the bears in the vicinity. The number of bears killed on their last trip varies according to who you talk to, the officer involved says 12 bears, others say 18 to 35. No one went to jail on this occasion but the officers created such animosity with their methods and interaction with the community that people eventually stalked them to warn off the bears.
I have only lived in this community for two years and was not here during these previous visits from the Conservation officers. I became the town administrator about a year ago. Three conservation officers paid us a visit about a month ago and introduced themselves to me. They seemed pleasant enough and I was surprised by how upset some of the locals were about their visit. They were obviously unwelcome by many. After they left I was told some of the history. I kept an open mind and gave them the benefit of doubt.
About 4 days ago I received a phone call from one of the officers to inform us that someone here had requested they come and deal with a problem bear and that they intended to fly in the next day by float plane. The Conservation Officer policy in our area is that Black Bears are not relocated, they are shot. They requested the use of the town truck as they had no means of transportation while they were here. I agreed to their request and arranged to meet them. There were a couple of bears that were of concern and I felt their trip was justified.
Because of the previous history with one of these conservation officers there was concern that they would shoot the twins. A few of us talked it over and someone volunteered to canvas as many people in the community as possible on short notice about whether they felt these cubs were an unacceptable threat. We prepared two petitions, one for people to sign if they though the cubs should be left alone and the other for if people thought the cubs were an unacceptable threat. No one signed the petition that the cubs should be shot, a majority of the community signed the petition that the twins should not be killed.
I met the officers when they arrived early the next evening and guided them to the place where they would stay. I talked with them at length that night and presented them with the petition. I described the bears that we felt were of concern as well as the cubs. I have gone back in my memory but cannot say for certain that they said then that they would not shoot the cubs. They certainly gave that impression to me.
I didn’t see them during the next day but went to see them in the evening. They informed me they had shot one bear that sounded like one of the bears we were concerned about. They mentioned that they had canvassed a number of people and talked to them about what they were doing. That evening one of them did say to me that they did not intend to shoot the cubs. One of the people they canvassed was also told they would not shoot the cubs. It appeared to me that they were being respectful of our community and I expressed my appreciation to them.
The next morning, Sunday, as I was preparing breakfast I heard a shot. I decided to see what the officers were doing. I searched until I found them. I saw the truck first and one of the cubs was dead in the back.
I found the officers nearby baiting a trap between two houses on an overgrown property full of berries. The dead cub had been snared and then shot in that spot after it went for the dead fish that were used as bait. It was obvious these officers had had no intention of living up to their word as this baited trap could not discriminate which bear or household pet it would attract. Once in the snare there was no way to safely release a bear.
The officers then said that it was obvious this bear was a problem bear because it had gone after their bait. They also said we had killed the bear because we had habituated it to our garbage. I will guarantee you than any bear will go and investigate a dead fish found in its normal browsing area. This behavior has nothing to do with being a habituated problem bear, it has to do with following its natural instinct. That the bear was there has nothing to do with garbage, it has everything to do with the wild berries growing here.
The officers mentioned that the house next door had recently lost four hamsters, presumably to one of the bear cubs. Anyone who leaves hamsters outside where there are bears and wolves is asking for trouble and tempting fate. To kill bears in the vicinity for such human negligence is not reasonable.
I informed the officers that they were no longer welcome to use the town truck and requested they drop it off at the courthouse after they disposed of the dead bear. They agreed to do so. Instead they kept the truck and did another circuit of the community then left it parked outside their residence. I came and got it and took it back to town.
The trap that the officers had set near their residence was set off. The other cub walked by just a few moments later and would also be dead now if the trap had remained active. Two other locals who lived two houses away from where the trap was set came and viewed the trap. One of the people has dogs and the other a cat. Any of these animals could have been snared as easily as a bear. Both of these people went and spoke to the officers separately to express their dismay. One person left in tears after being told the exact opposite of what the officers had said the day before. The officers now said that they intended to kill all the bears that were in town as they were obviously problem bears.
Myself and the other person that viewed the trap went and started calling government representatives in an attempt to call off these officers. After a number of phone calls it was agreed the officers would leave. They had a difficult job to do which we couldn’t do ourselves and should be appreciated for their efforts but their behavior here was unacceptable. I am now firmly on the list of people who no longer welcome them in this community.
Before this situation turned ugly, during my discussions with the officers they agreed that someone local who was licensed for firearms could deal with bears that were deemed a danger to the community as long as the Conservation Office was informed. We are willing to do whatever is required to make such a solution work as it is obvious the conservation officers are not sensitive to the values of this community. The unpleasantness of this situation has been a positive motivator for our community to work more diligently towards a more acceptable solution to such problems.
Ironically a few hours after the cub was shot and just as the float plane with the officers on board flew past my house on its way out of town the surviving cub came onto my property. For the first time I felt it was a threat to me as it was ill tempered and aggressive. I would be to if my twin had just been shot. I hope this bear settles down again or it to will need to be shot. If the issue arises hopefully we can deal with it from within the community.
Not all the blame rests with these officers. There would have been no need for them to come here and deal with our problem, using their methods, if we had been better able to communicate within our community so the issue could have been dealt with locally.
I greatly appreciate the privilege of living here and have been dedicated to doing what I can to help our community be a safe haven for all who choose to live here. This experience has made me question for the first time whether it might not be better to just let nature reclaim this area.
Unfortunately the common use of genocidal brute force to protect *our* territory is not restricted to Ocean Falls or towards other species. The aggressive military control of humans felt to be a threat to other human communities both historically and in the present day glaringly displays the deplorable moral state of humanity. I don’t know what the answer is but I do know that attempting to kill all perceived threats just increases the scope of the problem. If we hope to survive as a species we need to do better.