Bears are making their way into northern communities in numbers and often paying the price with their lives.
RCMP in Fort McMurray and Fort Smith have issued warnings concerning the number of bears spotted within each community. Eleven bears have been killed inside Fort Smith town boundaries, with a similar number being dealt with in McMurray.
“I am fairly sure that there has been a ballpark of around the same amount of bear shootings as in Fort Smith,” said Cst. Dustin Greig of Wood Buffalo RCMP. “We’ve been experiencing this issue for a month and a half now.”
NWT Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) officers in Fort Smith speculate the behavior by the bears may be caused by over-population, food availability in towns and particular landscape changes due to high water levels.
“We’re not 100 per cent sure that it comes down to one issue,” said Troy Ellsworth, manager of wildlife and environment for ENR at the district office in Fort Smith. “From all accounts, from what we have seen and what others have seen, this really has been a bad bear year.”
“Typically July and August are our busiest months for bears,” said Ellsworth. “We’re up to 50 reports just from July and this, the early part of August. Last year we had 45 reports from May through to September in total. Only five of those reported this year were in June, so that is 45 bear sightings in July and August in Fort Smith alone.”
Ellsworth believes reduced interest in bear hunting is playing a role in the spiked numbers across the north.
“There haven’t been a lot of hunters out harvesting bears,” he said. “When male bears are around 15 to 20 months of age, they are kicked out and forced to find their own way and their own home ranges. So if you look at cub survival, we’ve got twins and triplets born about two years ago and now they are wandering the streets as it were, looking for food, looking for their own home range.”
The hunt for home ranges has become more difficult for the animals because their natural pathways have been inaccessible due to high water levels.
“Rivers are a natural corridor for these animals, and right now they aren’t accessible,” said Ellsworth. “If you go down to the river now, there is no shoreline, the water is right up into the willows.”
With towns like Fort Smith sitting atop river banks, Ellsworth is not surprised that bears are showing up in such numbers.
“The bears are being forced up the bank,” said Ellsworth. “And Fort Smith is right there, with lots of high bush cranberries and Saskatoon berries, so the bear’s needs are being met.”
ENR is working in conjunction with the town of Fort Smith to make awareness pamphlets available to residents. These include tips on what measures to take when spotting a bear. RCMP officials are doing the same in Fort McMurray.
Ellsworth is confident that the issue is only temporary and everything should return to normal as the month closes and the river levels subside.
“We should see less and less bears as we get into August and the water level drops.”