An orphan bear cub has been visiting the back yards of Lake Cowichan in recent weeks and unless it is captured soon, it will have to be killed.
“We’ve been trying to catch up to this baby bear. The sooner we catch up to it, the better it is for the bear because we’d like to get it to rehab,” said conservation officer Scott Norris. “But the longer it spends in town the more habituated it gets to garbage and human food sources, that’s not going to be a possibility because the rehab centre doesn’t take habituated bears or cubs.”
Since at least Jan. 12, the bear has been spotted multiple times around the east end of town. Sightings have been reported around Lake Park Road, Neva Road, Beaver Road and Savoy Road. Wildlife experts estimate the bear is less than a year old and weighs between 30 and 60 pounds.
“Generally you’re not going to see a small cub of just a year by themselves,” said Norris.
“Usually they’re going to stick with their mom until next year. So likely something’s happened to mom and that’s why it’s on its own.”
Norris said it is possible the mother bear was hit by a car, killed during hunting season or illegally poached.
According to Norris, it’s imperative that the young bear is captured soon because once a bear has developed a taste for human food and garbage, there is no way to reverse this training.
“Even if you relocate them way out in the bush, they often end up in town again. It’s a learned behaviour,” he said.
Denis Martel, coordinator of the Valley Fish and Game Club’s Wilderness Watch Program, emphasized this point.
“It’s so important for people right now to keep your garbage [indoors],” he said. “I know a lot of people can’t afford a bear-proof garbage can or encasement area, but if you…can keep your garbage cans in a basement or a shed or something, and just put it out garbage day morning, that way it’s only exposed for that long. Instead of being outside all week.”
The Valley Fish and Game Club serves as an extra set of eyes and ears for conservation officers. The club does not tranquillize or capture animals. Instead, Martel and other members will respond to calls and try tracking the reported animal, then phone conservation officers when they have found it.
For this reason, Martel said he urges members of the public to call the Wilderness Watch hotline with any tips or information about dangerous animal sightings. He only learned about the bear cub two weeks after it was initially spotted.
“Everyone figured I knew about it [already], but I didn’t,” he said, adding that he would prefer to get a call and have to explain he’s already aware of the situation than for people to assume someone else brought it to his attention.
Martel has looked for the cub behind Lake Park Estates and has seen evidence of the bear in the bushes that act as a buffer between the neighbourhood and the highway.
“That bush is just littered with garbage,” he said. “[The bear] is pulling it up there from the households. It’s household garbage.”
Philecia Isaacson knows first-hand the importance of keeping garbage indoors. On the evening of Jan. 20, the bear showed up in her backyard, attracted to the family’s garbage, which didn’t make it out to the curb on collection day that week.
Isaacson said seeing the bear at her patio door took her by surprise, especially because their small yard is surrounded by a high fence.
“I know it’s Lake Cowichan,” she said. “I know they climb trees so I don’t know why I didn’t expect it to climb a fence. It was a deer in the headlights moment.”
Isaacson grew up in the Monashee Mountain region and has had run-ins with wildlife before, even encountering a cougar once, but said she initially panicked at the sight of the bear. Isaacson has two small children and expressed concern for other families in the area.
“A lot of kids walk home through the trails from school and stuff,” she said. The bear returned to her yard again the next afternoon, just around the time school would have been ending.
“It’s any time of day. It’s not as simple as ‘Don’t go walking after dark.’ No it’s any time,” she said.
Conservation officers like Norris advise members of the public to immediately report a bear sighting in a residential area, to give the animal lots of space and to never feed it.
“We need to get that message out there,” said Norris. “There’s that old saying, ‘A fed bear is a dead bear,’ and that bear won’t make it to rehab if we don’t keep it wild.”