Grizzly bear behaviour stirs dialogue and debate in the Bella Coola Valley
This is the first in a three-part series focusing on the Bella Coola Valley’s grizzly bear population, and the issues surrounding it.
Their presence is synonymous with British Columbia’s Central Coast — and in the Bella Coola Valley, the grizzly bears are as remarkable and majestic as they are polarizing.
“We’ve seen a lot of daytime activity,” said Steven Hodgson with the Conservation Officer Service.
“One thing we’re seeing a difference of this year is that human emotion is really being brought into it. There’s an international lens being brought onto a small community, where people are just trying to live their daily existence alongside the animals.”
That was brought to the forefront by remarkable social media footage, which was posted online in October. The video shows an alarming encounter between Lawrence Michalchuk, a longtime Bella Coola resident, and a grizzly sow, which was on his property along with her cubs.
WATCH: Grizzly bear charges man in Bella Coola
“We’ve opened up a can of worms here, because of the video. It went viral. Like, it’s nuts right now,” Michalchuk told Global News.
“It’s about my kids. There’s no bloody way in hell I was going to leave my house — my family — with a bear that was aggressive. I was a little upset, thinking, ‘I’ve got to move this bear off the property.’”
Michalchuk, who lives on the rural property with his wife and two young children, says he has received death threats since the footage was posted online and widely circulated.
The cellphone video, recorded by Michalchuk’s wife from inside their home, shows the sow charge at Michalchuk as he fires at the bear’s front leg with birdshot.
“It was walking away with the cubs,” he explained. “I’ve done this many times before. I just go out, and I shoot in the air. And they know the sound. And they’re less habituated, and they just go.”
But this particular encounter went terribly awry. Michalchuk said he yelled at the sow to assert dominance as it was leaving the property, when the bear suddenly turned and began charging.
“Then she put her head down, ears back, and then I thought, ‘OK, that’s a serious charge,’” Michalchuk recalled. “The last thing in my head was that my kids could possibly see me get mauled or killed.”
From July: Bella Coola man survives being attacked by a grizzly bear
Michalchuk’s actions have garnered both criticism and support: his critics accuse him of antagonizing the bear, insisting he should have let the sow and her cubs simply pass through the property without incident.
Others, like Harvey Thommasen, empathize with the situation.
“It certainly looks awful, him shooting it,” conceded Thommasen, a longtime resident and retired doctor in the community. “But, what else?”
Thommasen and his wife, Carol, are among the residents raising concerns over what they call an alarming uptick in daytime behaviour among the region’s grizzly bear population. The couple told Global News they’ve counted at least 40 of the bears, which are typically known to be nocturnal, passing through their property — even grazing on their lawn at times — during daylight hours in the past month alone.
“The problem is, it’s a bit like dogs. There’s a whole range. You’ll get the loveliest, sweetest, bears with the loveliest, sweetest cubs, that will just look at you, and you know that it’s fine—they’ll move on,” Thommasen explained.
“Most of this valley likes bears. We’re used to bears. But in the lower [Bella Coola] valley, we’re used to them being out in the nighttime. So now, all of the sudden, they’re coming out in the day. And there’s the odd bad one.”
“It’s absolutely shocking,” his wife agreed. “Absolutely shocking, that they could be right here.”
But the pressing question is why — and it’s not a simple one to answer.
Some say a decrease in the bears’ natural food supply, and a lower-than-average run of fish stock are forcing the bears to seek food sources closer to the lower Bella Coola Valley and, in turn, to residential areas. Some believe the province’s ban on hunting the bears may be contributing to a higher reproductive rate.
Others, including conservation officials, say human activity is largely to blame for the increase in bear activity on homeowners’ properties—where unpicked fruit trees and vegetable gardens serve as tempting attractants.
WATCH: B.C. government ends grizzly bear hunt
“It’s certainly been the busiest year I’ve seen in terms of call volume,” said Hodgson.
“We’ve seen a lot of daytime activity. We haven’t seen a lot of aggression. What that daytime activity may be attributed to is food sources that are available. So, if people are having attractants in their yards — let’s say, like, unmanaged fruit trees or other non-natural food sources — then we’re going to see that increase.”
Still, many residents point to another pressing issue: bears are being increasingly habituated by irresponsible tourists flocking to the region to catch a glimpse of the majestic mammals.
“I feel sorry for the bears,” Michalchuk said. “Some of these people get out of their vehicles with dogs — and they’re chasing the bears. Well, they’re just trying to eat the fish. And the bears finally get pissed off, and they’re going up into people’s yards.”
Michalchuk said he’s glad to see an apparently robust grizzly bear population in the region, but he urged tourists to view the bears from responsible and safe areas, like the designated viewing platform in nearby Tweedsmuir Provincial Park.
“In Bella Coola, there’s a population of people here,” he explained. “[Tourists] are hunting these bears with cameras. They’re habituated, and the bears are just getting moved around—and they’re not scared of people. So, when [the tourists] leave, the residents are stuck with that.”
There is one factor that nobody seemed to dispute: the situation is a dynamic and complex one, with no simple or quick solution. Conservation officials insist a collaborative approach is needed in the community in order to quell an increasingly tense situation.
Residents like Thommasen, meanwhile, who say they are working to coexist with the apex predators in their midst, fear the learning curve could ultimately result in a tragic outcome.
“If the bear huggers are right, nobody’s going to get hurt,” he said. “If we’re right, somebody’s going to get killed. And I sure hope it’s not somebody I know.”
© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.