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Black-bear sightings jump across B.C.

Glenda Luymes

Mick Webb hangs bear aware signs in North Vancouver on June 16, 2017. Webb is a volunteer with North Shore Black Bear Society. (Jason Payne/Postmedia Network)

Mick Webb hangs bear aware signs in North Vancouver on June 16, 2017. Webb is a volunteer with North Shore Black Bear Society. (Jason Payne/Postmedia Network)

Black-bear encounters across B.C. are up significantly compared to last year as snow lingers in the mountain meadows where they usually find food.

Between January and the end of May, B.C. conservation officers received 3,189 reports of black bear activity, according to the Wildlife Alert Reporting Program (WARP), a database that tracks wildlife reports. Over the same period last year, officers received 2,191 calls. In 2015, they received 2,372.

In May and June in the Lower Mainland alone, the number of reports is triple that of last year, from 550 calls last year to 1,643 this year.

"There's been increased calls across the province, not just in one or two communities," said Vanessa Isnardy, a bear educator with WildSafeBC. "There's likely several factors at work, but I'd say weather is definitely contributing to increased activity."

As bears emerge from hibernation in April, they're looking to replenish about 30 per cent of the weight they lost in the winter. They roam to find sweet, digestible greens like horsetail and clover that aren't covered by snow, and that sometimes brings them into urban areas.

"Bears have an excellent memory," said Isnardy, who works in Squamish. "If they don't find food quickly, they'll remember the easy calories they found the year before. So if they got into compost or a bird feeder in the fall, they may make their way back in the spring."

Competition also plays a large role, as the low snow pack concentrates populations at lower elevations, and females with cubs and young males try to avoid mature male bears.

Family dynamics may be partly to blame for several sightings on the North Shore this spring, said Christine Miller, education co-ordinator for the North Shore Black Bear Society, which — like WildSafeBC — provides bear education services.

Miller said a mother and three cubs were active in West Vancouver last year, while in North Vancouver a mother and two cubs were often sighted. Those two families — seven bears in total — will likely split up this year. If they continue to spend time in the community, encounters are likely.

"I do predict that it is going to be a bad year for bear deaths," she said, explaining that relocations are usually unsuccessful and conservation officers are forced to euthanize problem bears that pose a risk to public safety.

"The best option is for us to provide them with nothing to eat," she said.

Miller said homeowners have largely heeded advice about securing garbage and compost, but bird feeders are a particular problem. Fruit trees and backyard chickens must also be managed properly to avoid attracting bears.

Conservation Officer Service Insp. Murray Smith said some people hesitate to report a problem bear to the RAPP line (1-877-952-7277) because they're afraid it will be euthanized.

"We destroy so few bears," he said, explaining reports allow officers to co-ordinate interventions that prevent the situation from escalating, including educating neighbours about removing attractants.

On Wednesday, Niki Tavouktsoglou was shocked to see a bear in her backyard in downtown Chilliwack. She looked out her window as she was brushing her teeth and did a "double take."

"I spit out the toothpaste and ran to the deck to take pictures," she said. "I've never seen a bear before in my life, let alone in my backyard."

On Friday, WARP was showing more than 50 black bear reports in the last 24 hours in places like Squamish, Port Moody, Quesnel, Coquitlam, Okanagan Falls and West Vancouver.

Several Internet message boards about local trail conditions also contain warnings about bears that have been seen by hikers, mountain bikers and runners.

In late May, a man was scratched by a black bear while walking in a Squamish park. A few days later in Merritt, a jogger was chased and attacked by a bear, but managed to scare it off. The vast majority of bear reports are not attacks.

Smith said he expects to see the numbers ease a little as we enter the summer months and natural food sources are in abundance.