A long-time bear viewing guide and expert with concerns over the number of bears being euthanized in B.C. is calling for greater oversight of conservation officers’ actions.
Ellie Lamb, who teaches bear safety to community members, search and rescue organizations and park rangers, says she’d like to see the BC Conservation Officer Service introduce an external public board and body cameras. She says she believes officers are at times killing bears when other options are available.
Hundreds of bears killed a year
In 2021, 615 black and grizzly bears were killed, according to BC Conservation data. Of them, 520 were killed by conservation officers and 95 were killed by other agencies or the public.
Conservation inspector Scott Norris says killing a bear is always the last resort, though. He points out the vast majority of calls they answer don’t result in death. In 2021, the service received 22,600 calls, 11 per cent of which they attended in person and 2.7 per cent of which ended in a bear being killed. This is similar to the previous two years when 3.2 per cent (671 bears) and 3.1 per cent (702 bears) of calls resulted in euthanization.
“We give a lot of bears the benefit of the doubt,” Norris says.
Still, the numbers are far too high for Lamb.
She points to multiple instances recorded in BC Conservation 2021 documents and released publicly through an Access to Information Act request that she says exemplify officers overstepping their duty.
In one, an officer responded to a black bear cub that was in bad condition and believed to be orphaned. Records show the officer caught the cub and had a veterinarian assess its condition over the phone before deciding to euthanize it.
Lamb says it should be a requirement that bears are always assessed by a vet in person, and argues the cub should have been taken to a wildlife rehabilitation centre instead.
Officers respond to complex situations
Norris says officers have years of experience with bears and always do their best to consult with a vet or biologist by sending photos and describing the bear’s condition over the phone before making a final call.
“It’s unfortunate people seem to think that’s not enough of an assessment,” he says.
He adds that sometimes officers are out of cell service or are in a dangerous situation and don’t have time to make a phone call. Other times, officers will choose to euthanize a bear if a rehabilitation centre is a long drive away, or if an officer believes the bear’s chances of ever surviving in the wild are low, Norris says.
He adds that it’s never a proud moment for an officer when they choose to euthanize a bear.
“We all come into the job because we care about protecting wildlife,” he says.
Questions over co-existence
Perhaps the largest discrepancy between Norris and Lamb’s approaches to bears is their differing beliefs over whether habituation is a real thing. Norris argues bears that spend too much time around humans lose their fear of them and cannot return to the wild, while Lamb says bears have never feared humans and will naturally move in and out of urban settlements on their own.
In her experience, Lamb says she’s found bears get along with others. Co-existence is possible if humans remove major attractants, like garbage and dog food, and set proper boundaries, she says.
If a bear is on someone’s property for example, Lamb says they should use a firm voice and tell the bear to leave. If it refuses, the person should take a step forward to show they are standing their ground and again firmly ask the bear to go. Only if that fails should a person throw a rock at the bear or use a burst of bear spray, Lamb says.
“They’re incredibly intuitive animals, and they will know the tone and intention behind what you’re saying,” she says.
It’s these kinds of approaches she’d like to see conservation officers taking more often.
Norris agrees removing attractants is a huge part of reducing human-bear conflict, but says co-existence will never be possible in large urban centres. He stresses that officers do try to set boundaries with bears when possible, but that each situation is different and sometimes they have to make sudden, difficult decisions.
A call for public transparency
Ultimately, Lamb says it should be up to the public to decide whether officer’s actions and the rate of euthanization of bears is acceptable or not. She believes body cameras and an external board would be the best way to achieve that transparency.