Overcoming conflict: The case for coexisting with wildlife

With more black bears killed in recent years, wildlife advocates make a case for adapting to our environment rather than trying to subdue it

“Where life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price. That is why the bounty killers appeared.”

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

Settlers of Coquitlam

There were bounty hunters in Coquitlam then. But not that kind.

It was the 1890s. Electric streetlights were buzzing in New Westminster. A telephone line had reached Richmond for the first time. And, in Coquitlam, council was discussing the pests that tromped and trudged and flew over their newly-incorporated district.

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Coquitlam was in: “such a wild state that deer, bear, mink, racoon, skunk, wildcat, muskrat and other animals foamed freely,” according to A History of Coquitlam and Fraser Mills, written by H.A.J. Monk and J. Stewart.


For council, the solution seemed obvious: kill them.

Under the Noxious Animals and Birds By-law, enterprising hunters and trappers got three cents for a blue jay, a nickel a hawk, a quarter for a skunk or a mink, 50 cents for a racoon. A bear brought in the grand prize: a whopping bounty of $2.50.

By the 1920s, British Columbia nature societies were campaigning against “the provincial government’s policy of exterminating . . . ‘noxious predators,’ according to A Hundred Years of Natural History, written by Susan Fisher and Daphne Solecki.

As a King Solomon-like compromise, the provincial government heeded naturalists and required bounty hunters to produce the whole animal, rather than just the head.

“Then it would be possible to examine the contents of the stomach to see just how much damage to other species was in fact occurring,” Fisher and Solecki explain.

At its peak, the province paid out bounties on 2,000 great horned owls in a single year. However, the number of animal bounties slowly declined until, in 1958, predatory birds were put on the protected list.

Taming the Wild West

Following a recent attack on a three-month-old German shepherd puppy in Anmore, a cougar was recently euthanized in Port Moody due to an “escalating public safety risk.”

This response, while perhaps understandable, is not a long-term solution, argues Lesley Fox, executive director for environmental organization The Fur-Bearers.

“We can’t kill or relocate our way out of these problems,” Fox says.

Part of the problem, she explains, is that many of us look at humans and animals as being in conflict.

“Conflict suggests there’s two parties that don’t agree,” she says. Animals, she continues, are not a willing participant.

Coquitlam children stand over a dead bear. photo City of Coquitlam Archives

“There’s no such thing as wildlife conflict. It’s a human conflict,” Fox maintains. “This situation isn’t getting better. It’s getting worse.”

According to a recent study that examined data from more than 40 years and more than 2,500 grizzlies, coexistence between people and predators presents: “one of the greatest conservation challenges of our time.”

The study, published at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, found that for each bear that manages to survive in a human-dominated landscape, another 29 bears die. That figure is relative to four deaths in the wilderness.

Learning to coexist with animals is paramount as the wilderness shrinks and “the human footprint expands,” the study’s authors explain.

Overall, humans don’t seem to be rising to the occasion.

The frequency of brown bear attacks on humans is increasing. Those attacks also generate more media coverage than those “with any other terrestrial or aquatic predator,” according to the study.

In Coquitlam there were 24 bears killed in 2019-20. In 2012-13 there were three.

One of the challenges may be that bears don’t seem capable of learning to avoid people, the study notes. “We found little to no spatial avoidance of human-dominated areas.”

Essentially, once a bear establishes a home range, that range is established for life.

At Critter Care Wildlife Society in Langley, Laura Hardiman reported a steady increase in admissions of injured animals.

“Some of the reasons for this would be human encroachment more and more through construction and human population growth on their habitats,” she wrote in an email, adding that more injured animals might be being reported as more hikers trek deeper into the wilderness during the pandemic.

Wildlife Rescue in Burnaby reported a slight decrease in calls about bears, coyotes or cougars, although that may be due to more people realizing the organization is primarily an avian-based rescue, explains communications co-ordinator Vindi Sekhon.

For Fox, the key word is coexistence. It’s a concept that needs to touch every part of our lives from how we walk our dogs and take out our garbage as well as how we plan our cities.

“How do we incorporate wildlife into the design and planning of our communities?” Fox asks. “Let’s start there.”

A shortcut home

Much like climate change and the economy, our relationship with wildlife is inexorably entangled with transportation.

Sometimes humans build roads through animal habitat. Then, sometimes, humans are upset to find animals crossing our road.

A bear takes a dip at Mundy Park. photo Mackenzie Spenrath

The situation seemed most acute in Alberta, where the federal government spent more than $400 million upgrading and expanding the Trans-Canada Highway – right through Banff National Park.

In a bid to deal with the resultant roadkill, Parks Canada built overpasses and underpasses for animals only – an idea immediately assailed as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Only it worked. In 20 years the Red Earth Wildlife Overpass facilitated 200,000 crossings by bears, cougars, elk, foxes, wolverines, as well as more unexpected travellers including boreal toads, garter snakes and beavers, according to a Canadian Geographic article penned by Gloria Dickie.

Twenty years after construction, wildlife collisions were down 80 per cent, Dickie writes.

While the scale is somewhat smaller, there’s a similar spirit of ingenuity in Squamish as district workers experiment with different plastic garbage totes in the hopes of finding their Goldilocks garbage bin: a bear-resistant container that’s just right.

Closer to home, we’ve seen Port Moody examine banning rodenticides, Port Coquitlam’s commitment to no net loss of forest and Coquitlam hiring a wildlife co-ordinator.

However, Fox is adamant that tangible penalties and rewards are necessary to move forward.

“Education without enforcement doesn’t work,” she says.

For Julie Kanya, Coquitlam’s urban wildlife co-ordinator, handing out tickets for bylaw infractions is “probably the worst part of the job.”

“Ticketing is our last resort,” Kanya says, explaining that a warning is sufficient for most people.

The city’s efforts have focused on education; sometimes spreading the word through community organizations in recognition of the fact that most people would rather hear about securing garbage from a neighbour rather than a bylaw officer.

There have been more reports of wildlife encounters recently, although Kanya says she’s not sure if there are actually more encounters. After an initial wave of development in which homeowners could chop trees and build anywhere, the city began regulating development after the Second World War, introducing regulations on riparian setbacks in 1982.

As the population grows there are more chances to spot bears ambling through the city and as more homeowners install security cameras there’s naturally more footage of cougars.

To make her point, Kanya notes the cluster of bear sightings in Harbour Village just off the highway.

“It’s not because all the bears are hanging out in the middle of the city,” she says. “That’s where the people are who are reporting their sightings.”

We can usually expect an increase in bear activity following a poor salmon run or a blackberry-decimating heatwave, Kanya notes.

“We do typically see an increase in those conflicts where they’re going for garbage and other easy food sources perhaps because those other natural foods aren’t as readily available.”

As the bears wake up hungry this spring, Kanya wants to remind residents to clean their barbecues, keep pets inside, keep bird seed out of reach and take special care with aromatic trash.

“There are a lot of calories . . . in garbage,” she says. “That’s kind of what brings them into our neighbourhoods.”

Atkins’ diet

Ned Atkins liked Port Coquitlam so much that, when his family moved to Hawaii in 1868, he stayed.

Originally from County Kerry, Ireland, he’d come across the ocean, over the continent and up the river to settle in a spot near what would later become Riverside Secondary, chronicles historian Chuck Davis in Port Coquitlam: Where Rails Meet Rivers.

One of the things Atkins loved about his new home was, in a manner of speaking, the animals.

There was plenty of game, and it was easy to shoot: they took geese, ducks and deer. The larder was always full, Atkins recalls.

Today, the future of that wildlife is perhaps more precarious than it has ever been.

In 2017, Premier John Horgan sent a letter to Minister of Environment George Heyman, instructing him to: “Enact an endangered species law and harmonize other laws to ensure they are all working towards the goal of protecting our beautiful province.”

Four years later, that legislation is “now under development.”

The biodiversity of B.C. must be preserved, Fox urges.

“It’s one of the benefits to being a British Columbian and it really, I think, calls on us to be better stewards and to protect what we’ve inherited,” she says. “Metro Vancouver was carved out of a rainforest. It is very normal and natural that wild animals are here.”

There is a deep-seated problem in the way we think of humans and animals, Fox says. In an academic paper published at Harvard University Press, researchers contend that the focus on conflict can lead to biases. A study of scientific literature found that conflict was the focus of research about 35 times more often than coexistence. A greater knowledge of humanity’s ability to tolerate wildlife is important in “facilitating coexistence,” the authors conclude.

Protecting wildlife is not simply about being kind to animals. There is also a large element of self-interest. We likely face a rising risk of a zoonotic disease ballooning into another pandemic, Fox says.

“What we do to animals we ultimately do to ourselves.”

Escaping history

Appraising the changes in Coquitlam between 1858 and 1958, authors Monk and Stewart note the way tall timbers once towered over a wilderness, and the way that wilderness has been transformed into “a well-settled community.”

“Down at the river bank the silence of the marshland was once seldom broken, except by cries of the gulls as they came from the sea . . . Now the hum of industry penetrates the air through day and night,” they write

The mindset is an old one.

In A Hundred Years of Natural History, biologist Yorke Edwards laments the way natural history is so often lost.

“So often the dying of a generation is the vanishing of what was known,” Edwards states. “The historic record rarely contains what most dismiss as only scenery and mere wild animals that will always be there— or so it is believed.”

Municipalities have a key role in maintaining biodiversity and overcoming that old mentality, Fox says.

In a bid to further that conversation, the Fur-Bearers partnered with UBC student researchers on an online survey to study ways to mitigate conflicts with bears. Fox reported more than 1,000 responses for the survey, which closes today (March 26).

It’s a sign people want to talk about wildlife, she says.

“The Tri-Cities is uniquely positioned . . . to have this conversation,” she says. “The Tri-Cities is really desirable – for animals as well.”

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