Campbell River’s bear problem is escalating. There were twice as many reports of bears raiding garbage cans this year. Sergeant Mike Newton, a Conservation Officer with the Ministry of Environment, went to the June 27 city council meeting with a couple of suggestions.

They both hinge upon changing human behaviour.

A black bear on Rockland Road in Campbell River – Photo by Amy Forest

He explained that North Vancouver Island is prime bear habitat. Many communities are built along the salmon bearing streams where bears naturally geo funnel.

Our zone looks after all the communities north from Fanny Bay up to Bella Bella.  We see the wide swath of bigger centres like Campbell River, Courtney, Comox and smaller towns like Tahsis, Gold River.  It’s the same issue, in all community sizes,” said Newton.

Hopefully Cortes Island will continue to be an exception. It has been two years since there was a bear problem. While the ‘Whaletown Bear’ had to be euthanized, his Squirrel Cove counterpart appears to have eluded conservation officers. The Friends of Cortes Island (FOCI) has been educating islanders about bear proofing their yards. There were no reports of bears raiding garbage cans, compost or fruit trees on Cortes in 2021. A bear was spotted in Squirrel Cove a little over a week ago, but there have been many sightings on Cortes over the years. They normally do not become problems.

A bear could not get into the metal garbage bin on the left, but it can easily access the plastic ones on the right – courtesy Sgt Newton’s presentation

Newton told Campbell River’s city council, “Whether the bears are seen or not, they are there in every area of Campbell River. You can bet on that for sure. The dogs will quite often keep them more sneaky and nocturnal. People think, oh, you can use a bear banger to chase a bear off of your garbage and it won’t come back. You cannot haze a bear away from an attractant once it’s getting into that food source.”

He explained that because of the mild weather this year, the bear’s natural foods (grass, dandelions, etc.) are still abundant. They have had no reason to leave for higher elevations. The bears are still in town.

“We play a role in trying to keep the bears safe from people. People are damaging the bears by leaving attractions available and causing the bears behaviour to change. Then we try to keep people safe from the bears,” explained Newton.

“We get called out to the worst cases. When bears are breaching houses, breaking into cars, acting in the threatening aggressive behaviour towards people and in the worst of all, when they actually do attack people and cause personal injury.”

He showed the council a series of pictures taken over the previous 24 hours. While there were some bear proof garbage bins, there were also plastic bins that could not resist an attack. There were photos of overflowing receptacles and of garbage on the ground.

Newton said a bear’s switch to garbage as its primary food source usually starts when no one is around. It often takes place at night.

Screenshot of overfull garbage container near Rockland Road – courtesy presentation

“They start to compete over the garbage and the pattern starts to develop where dominant bears will claim that prize and subdominant bears will be pushed from that already habituated garbage, and then they’ll get into real trouble. They’ll follow their noses up on porches. They’ll push on doors, they’ll push on screen doors and eventually they create a situation where we end up having to set a trap, catch a bear, and all too often those bears are not relocation candidates,” said Newton.

“They have learnt that garbage is  full of vitamins full of minerals and fat.  If they are young bears, trying to make a start in life and not doing so well, they’ll get hooked on that. They’ll stray away from natural food.”

Sergeant Newton showed the counsellors a picture of a building the size of a  single stall garage.

“We are doing some things right. This is a newer multiplex property  near the hospital.  I really want to commend the city, if you have a role. I think you do in your development plans as to what you’re pushing new developments to do, as far as managing the garbage. These enclosed garbage rooms are definitely the way to go.”

Screenshot of enclosed garbage room – courtesy presentation

“Even though some of the dumpsters are bear proof, the bears will investigate them all. They’re being tested constantly. It’s covered in bear tracks.  They’re moving from site to site testing constantly. If we drop our guard, if we take a shortcut and if we replace an expensive steel bin with a cheap plastic one, we will pay the price and unfortunately the bear will play the dearest price of all once it accesses that garbage.”

He also presented solutions.

“If we can immediately switch out everything that isn’t bear proof across the city, regardless of who’s responsible — whether it’s a housing complex,  the school district, the city, or homeowners —  there’s absolutely no doubt that bear conflict numbers will be reduced. We’ll have a city where it’s safer for bears and safer for people,” proclaimed Newton.

“Which brings me to the main point I was hoping to approach mayor and council with this evening, the issue of curbside garbage. Individual household garbage ends up on the side of the road the night before pickup because people don’t want to get up early in time to meet the truck.  That’s a free ticket for a bear in the dead of the night to go yard to yard, street to street and feed on garbage.”

Sergeant Newton wants Campbell River to change its bylaws, so that residents will no longer be allowed to put their garbage out overnight.

Screenshot of the Wildlife Act with relevant portions highlighted in yellow

“The way it’s currently written, the bylaw is specifically laid out that you can put it out the night before pickup, which is contrary to what we’re trying to educate the public, what we’re doing with our Wildlife Act provisions. I want to appeal to the city of Campbell River to align with the provincial Wildlife Act and to make moves so that we can work together and be on the same, line of communication,” he said.

For the past three years, Conservation Officers have been patrolling the neighbourhoods where there have been the most bear reports on the night before garbage pick-up. They knock on the doors of anyone who already has their garbage out.

“We’re met with varied responses. Some people are fantastic. They say ‘I had no idea that there’s bears in Campbell River,’ or ‘in this area of Campbell River.’ Other people don’t seem to care,” said Newton.

City staff are looking into the steps Campbell River can take to implement the proposed change to the bylaws, and possible ramifications.

Top photo credit: Black Bears on Rockland Road, Campbell River – Photo by Amy Forest.