New Denver mayor Leonard Casley says it seemed the town was overrun by bears this year.
“I think we had eight bears running around town at any given moment,” he said.
How bad would it have been if the village was not a Bear Smart community?
“I bet it would have been twice as bad,” Casley says.
New Denver is one of 10 communities in the province that have been certified by the Ministry of the Environment as Bear Smart.
To be certified, a community has to meet six criteria: it must conduct a bear-hazard assessment, create a bear-human conflict management plan, incorporate the plan into other planning documents, implement an ongoing public education program, create a bear-proof waste management system, and enact enforcement bylaws.
In the new year, Nelson City Council will discuss whether to begin this process.
This follows a year when 13 bears were killed by conservation officers in Nelson, and when bears roaming within city limits was a common sight.
The ministry has written a sample bylaw that municipalities may adopt or alter to suit local conditions.
It contains the stringent requirement that there not be a single non-bear-resistant waste container in the municipality, on private or public land or at residences, businesses, or institutions. The bylaw defines “bear-resistant container,” and any enclosure that houses such a container, in very specific detail.
In its requirements for commercial containers, the sample bylaw states, “As a guideline, a lid that can be dismantled using a crowbar is not sufficient.”
The sample bylaw also contains rules about curbside collection, composting, barbecue storage, fruit storage, bird feeders, and electric fences around chickens and bees.
The bylaw recommends a $300 fine for each day of infraction.
The other nine Bear Smart communities in the province are Kamloops, Squamish, Lions Bay, Whistler, Port Alberni, Naramata, Coquitlam, and Port Hardy, and Castlegar.
Castlegar’s Wildlife Attractant bylaw, developed in 2021 as part of its Bear Smart program, follows the sample bylaw but is less detailed, and the fines for most infractions are $50 per day.
The city’s director of corporate services Tracey Butler said council made becoming Bear Smart a priority five years before it actually achieved it.
“We did several years of just education,” she says. “And now we are starting to enforce it through bylaw enforcement.”
Butler said the city initially used federal gas tax money to buy every resident a 240-litre bear-resistant container. But there is still an annual cost of up to $20,000 to maintain the program, she says.
“You really do have to have the financial resources behind you. Once you get Bear Smart status, you need to maintain it. It’s not that you get it and that’s it.”
Casley echoes Butler’s advice that ongoing maintenance and enforcement are crucial. But New Denver does not have a bylaw enforcement officer, he says, so it is difficult to find the money or staff to enforce the $50 to $2,000 fines in its bylaw.
“You really have to look at that,” he said. “Do you have the staffing capability to keep it up?”
Maintaining Bear Smart status includes public education and enforcement, Butler says, adding that the city sends out at least four flyers a year, often included in such things as water and tax bills.
One of Castlegar’s enforcement methods is for city staff and the WildSafe BC co-ordinator to go out in the late evening and tag garbage that has been put out the night before collection day. The tag informs the resident if they repeat the offense they will be fined. And the city follows through on this warning, Butler says, having ticketed 23 people this year.
A few years ago they would tag 20 or 30 bags each time, and now it’s down to a handful, she said.
Butler says the city maintains a working group consisting of a conservation officer, the WildSafeBC co-ordinator, the waste management contractor, a bylaw enforcement officer, the city’s communications manager, and Butler herself.
“So there’s seven of us that sit down throughout the year and strategize on how to make the program better.”
Despite all of these measures, nine bears were destroyed in Castlegar in 2022, up from three the previous year.
Asked how this increase squares with the city’s Bear Smart status, Butler said a bad berry year in the mountains can make the difference.
Conservation officer Ben Beetlestone confirms this. He told the Nelson Star that a poor berry crop combined with a dry late summer that dries out natural food sources in the mountains will send bears into town. Communities that had poor berry crops in nearby mountains had trouble in town with bears.
“Although Castlegar is doing almost everything possible from a municipal standpoint,” Butler said, “it takes the residents to fully understand once a bear has a taste of your garbage or unmanaged fruit or nut trees they will be back.”
Nelson mayor Janice Morrison told the Nelson Star that the question of whether to pursue Bear Smart status will be part of council’s strategic planning sessions in the spring.