It seems almost anywhere you go in Prince George right now, you might run into a black bear.
They’re climbing into people’s backyards, walking onto front porches, and even crossing busy highways in the middle of the day.
And while seeing a bear or two is not unusual in the north-central B.C. city — which is full of greenbelts and surrounded by forest — some residents feel the sheer number of bears spotted in the last several weeks might be.
“I’ve lived in Prince George my whole life and in various parts of the city,” said resident Melanie Young. “The bear population has definitely increased.”
Sharon Bourassa agrees.
“They are all over my neighborhood now,” she said.
“We usually only have rare sightings. Now it is a daily occurrence.”
Dawn Kerfers has been able to identify at least five different bears living in Moore’s Meadow, a popular park covering about one square kilometre buttressing up against several residential neighbourhoods, including her own.
She’s set up a viewing platform — a step ladder — over her fence and has taken it upon herself to pick apples and other possible attractants in the neighbourhood to keep the bears from leaving their natural habitat.
“We typically only used to get them in the fall,” Kerfers, who has lived in her home for more than two decades, said.
“Before they fattened up for the winter, they would start coming up onto the street. And this year, we had three or four bears already early this spring, which is kind of an oddity.”
Tough to track bear numbers
Kara MacAuly, a wildlife biologist in Prince George, says researchers don’t really have good data to track bear populations in the city year-to-year.
She also says just because certain parts of the city are seeing more bears, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s more in the city as a whole — backing comments from some who say they are seeing fewer, rather than more, bears in their neighbourhood.
The animals tend to be very site-specific, she says, moving to where food can be found.
So far, B.C.’s Conservation Officer Service hasn’t recorded an increase in complaints about bears — meaning that even if the number of sightings are up, the number of problem bears are not.
But there are some theories around why bears may be out in fuller force this year, and they’re related to the hotter-than-normal weather being seen in the region.
Fires, drought and berries
Bowinn Ma, B.C.’s minister of emergency management and climate readiness, said at a press conference this week that parts of the province are seeing berry crop failure due to unprecedented drought, and that may be driving bears into cities seeking food.
That could be the case in Prince George, which had an unusually early spring and has sustained the highest average temperature on record for weeks, leading to Saskatoon berries and blueberries ripening and drying out weeks earlier than usual.
Meanwhile, apple and other fruit trees in people’s yards are ready for harvest — potentially attracting bears into the city ahead of schedule.
Others have theorized that earlier and larger wildfires in the region could also be a factor.
Then there’s the increased development of green spaces in the city over the past few years, as former wildlife habitat is being turned into new homes and businesse, with 2022 marking a record year for building permits.
MacAuly says while bears and other wildlife would “want to avoid bad things and go to good things,” she also says “there are so many different factors, it’s hard to tease apart how everything might impact an individual bear.”
However, she says, there is clear evidence that bears do follow their stomachs to the easiest possible food source, and past berry crop failures have led to increased human-bear encounters.
“They’re eating all the time,” she said. “The key, for people, is to not be part of the problem.”
That means harvesting early crops and making sure garbage is locked up or secure so bears don’t see people as a food source, leading to aggressive or problematic behaviour that would result in them being killed.
MacAuly says even without berries, there are other foods in the wild that can help bears survive.
A need for more research
Adam Ford, Canada Research Chair in wildlife restoration ecology at the University of British Columbia, says it is difficult to make direct links between bear behaviour year-to-year and any individual factor.
But, he says, it’s clear the province is warming and as wildfires, drought and other climate events get more extreme, bears and other animals are going to be impacted.
What’s needed is more sustained research in what that means for wildlife — and human — populations overall, he says.
“I think that’s what people in British Columbia are looking for,” he said.
“We love our nature. People love bears. And we don’t want bears to get hurt because of the way that the world is changing.”