They live among us
If you live in rural Nova Scotia, it is not unlikely that you may encounter a black bear. While these megafaunas prefer the safety and comfort of densely forested areas, if they smell food they will follow their nose to the source. This often leads to toppled garbage cans and raided campgrounds (if food isn’t stored properly).
If you live in an urban or suburban area, the chances of running into a black bear are low, but still possible. In the Halifax Regional Municipality, Lake echo, is a local example of bears venturing closer to humans. If you should encounter these gentle beasts there is no need to panic, but it is important you know what to do.
Getting to know black bears
Chances are if you see a black bear in Nova Scotia, you’ll know it! They are the only bear species that inhabit the province. Easily identifiable by their sleek black fur, which may be speckled by brown, particularly around the chest and face. Ranging in size anywhere from 265 - 440 lbs, with males that are typically larger than females. They can be spotted from the early spring and into the fall, as they hibernate in the winter when it gets colder. Black bears can be found anywhere in the province but are reported most frequently from the western end.
With a diet that consists of 75% vegetable matter, they eat mostly apples, berries, buds, and other things they can scavenge. These opportunistic omnivores will also gladly feast on insects, larvae, fish, and eggs (luckily, they’re also excellent tree climbers). As those in rural areas can attest, they also have a knack for sniffing out garbage.
Why are we seeing more black bears?
This year, reports of black bear sightings in Nova Scotia have been higher than previous years. This is a result of several compounding factors such as an increase in rural development and habitat partitioning. Also, black bears are very territorial and don’t like to share their space(adult males have been known to kill other bears that wander into their territory.) Declining amounts of suitable habitat can push bears into spaces occupied by people. With increasingly limited access to food, bears are forced to look for food in non-traditional places. To add to the issue, in early summer as the juvenile bears begin looking for food on their own for the first time, they are sometimes drawn to green bins and other “easily” accessible food sources.
While most encounters go smoothly (check out this curious bear in Mexico), negative encounters with bears have left the many in the province scared of these gentle giants. When in actuality they pose very little threat to us, and in fact, they need our help to protect them.
In an article published in July, the Department of Lands and Forestry reported a surge in black bear sightings. This increase is roughly 100 more reports so far this year than in all of 2017. People in HRM communities and into the valley have seen black bears roaming their neighborhoods. Farther north, two women felt trapped by multiple bears on a familiar hiking trail in Cape Breton. While no one was hurt, accounts like these often cause alarm for readers and foster growing fear about black bear presence in the province.
Bears are known to be more active around people in late fall as food sources diminish. Some speculate that an increase in sightings early this year could be due to the global pandemic. There have been fewer people out and about; in result, bears may be emboldened to explore areas they would typically avoid, but there is yet to be solid data to back this claim.
Increasing interactions with black bears may spark fears and anxiety for many in the province; however, if proper precautions are taken, bears pose little risk to us. In fact here in Nova Scotia, a local woman from West Dalhousie has fostered a kinship with the bears that have moved into her back yard.
While examples such as the bears in West Dalhousie show we can co-exist peacefully with them, there is no denying a troubling aspect of their new presence: these bears that frequent her yard, arrived after land that was once densely forested behind her home was subjected to a new logging operation.
All over the province, bears are losing their homes, so they push their boundaries into agricultural areas and cottage country, some reaching as far as the Halifax counties. When called, the Department of Natural Resources will relocate a “problem” bear to a more rural area. There are several issues with this method, however. The land where the bear is released may already be the territory of another bear or may not have adequate food supply. Nova Scotia’s small fragmented habitats mean merely crossing from one forested area to the next often requires crossing roads and passing through urban areas, or farmland.
It is becoming clear that as we continue to develop into their habitat, bear sightings will increase. Moving forward, the best we can do for them and for ourselves is to improve their habitat conservation, as well as prepare ourselves for an encounter.
What we can do
Black bears want to see us even less than we want to see them, but that doesn’t mean they will be deterred from a guaranteed food source. The best thing we can do to avoid them is eliminate the food sources, and moreover take precautions so that we avoid encounters.
As stated above, bears will eat just about anything. Starting in the early spring those in rural counties, or with cottages in the country must be extra diligent not to make their yard or garbage attractive to bears. Some easy steps to follow are….
· Bring bird feeders inside at night or remove them completely; at a minimum, keep them 2m or higher above the ground
· If you typically feed your pets outdoors consider bringing the food inside, or be sure to clean up the food immediately after your pet is done eating
· If you have fruit trees around your yard, do your best to pick the fruit or discard of the fallen fruit. Even if you don’t eat it yourself.
· Keep fish, or meat scraps (extra smelly kitchen garbage) in the freezer until the morning of collection
In the wild
If you encounter a black bear in the wild, chances are they want the interaction to go just as smoothly as you do. Here are some steps to ensure it does:
- Make lots of noise on the trail. Many times, when you encounter a bear, they are surprised as well. By alerting the bear well in advance, the bear is able to avoid you. Next time you’re in bear country, just give a “hello bear” shout every few minutes, or bring bells, a radio or any other noisy instruments you can find.
- If you’re camping, keep your food properly sealed and away from the campsite. Best options are locked in a vehicle, but alternatively you can hang your food in a tree. Ensure its 100m away from the campsite, and a minimum of 4 meters high.
- If you’re hiking or camping with a pet, keep them on a leash as they are known to either attract or agitate bears. If your pup has angered a bear it may attract it back to you.
Image retrieved from https://www.outsideonline.com/2386146/bear-bags-ineffective
Earlier this year (March) the provincial government, specifically the Department of Lands and Forestry, came under fire for euthanizing a black bear cub. The orphaned cub was delivered in relatively good health to the hope for wildlife center, where it stayed less than a day before the department arrived. This isn't the first time this has happened, and unfortunately due to restrictive conservation policy, it wasn't the last. On Labor Day weekend, for example, the province had another instance where a cub was euthanized. This time, the cub was hit by a car but appeared again to be in good health before the wildlife technicians euthanized it on scene.
The policy surrounding the black bear conservation stems from the fear that once rehabilitated by humans, a cub will never survive away from them, and as creatures of habit, they will always return. We are currently the only province other than PEI (which no longer has bears) who still has this policy in place. The success of programs in other provinces shows us that rehabilitation is possible. A facility in BC successfully released over 300 bears in its 26 years of operation. These bears have gone on to mate and subsequently increase local bear populations.
The Minister of Lands and Forestry Iain Rankin has stated that he has no issues with an updated policy stating, "Gladly I would like to see bears rehabilitated but those requirements would have to be met according to the biologists that I have in the department.". A definitive step in the right direction, but still no tangible action has been taken. Here in Nova Scotia we already have the facilities and funding available through the Hope for Wildlife center in Seaforth. Unfortunately, this has not yet changed the mind of the politicians behind the decision.
With the knowledge, we have from other provinces, combined with the vets and facilities available at the Hope for Wildlife center, there is no longer a valid argument as to why this policy should stay intact. The government has stated it is open to change, but nothing has been done to date. In response to the lag in government actions locals have created a petition to show the public interest this matter has accumulated. Hopefully, with enough individuals raising their voices, we will soon see Nova Scotia adopting a new conservation policy.
Bear Cub taken from Hope for Wildlife.
How we can help them
Black bear populations in Nova Scotia are steady, partially because they are regulated with seasonal hunting. However, we need to be proactive in ensuring they stay that way. With an increase in rural development, as well as outdated conservation policy, the stability of their population is at risk.
Going forward, these bears need our help to ensure that they continue to thrive in Nova Scotia. Black bears are a vital part of the ecosystems as they are not only an indicator species (meaning they have the ability to indicate the health of the ecosystem as a whole), but they also manage other species populations, and work as the forests cleanup crew; scavenging whatever has been left by other animals. Diminishing their population would be a preventable and tragic loss.
As a province, we need to do better by our only native bear species. These charismatic megafaunas deserve a protected home, and the same standards for care exhibited by other provinces. With proper outreach, we can help foster a mentality of care for our bears, not fear.
No Need to Fear Them, If You Respect Them
While the chances of a bear encounter are low, its remains a very real possibility for inhabitants across the province. By following the above advice, your encounter is likely to go smoothly and you’ll have had the unique chance of seeing this beautiful creature in the wild.
These lumbering giants don’t want to hurt you (or even see you), but with long claws for digging, and sharp teeth for biting, their self defense techniques could do some damage to a human or pet.
Remember to stay alert and take the necessary precautions. So, if you should encounter a bear, both the bear and you will come out unharmed… and with quite a story.
Sarah Richards is our summer 2020 Dalhousie Student Intern. She is a third year student at Dalhousie University studying Environmental Science and Sustainability.
· Lands and Forestry defends killing bear cub it seized from Hope For Wildlife, CTV News. https://atlantic.ctvnews.ca/lands-and-forestry-defends-killing-bear-cub-it-seized-from-hope-for-wildlife-1.4985660
· Black Bears: Denizen of the Forest or Green Box Junkie, Jenny Costelo.
·You thought murder hornets were scary? Ontario’s got bears, tvo.
·How to Avoid Problems with Black Bears, Department of Lands and Forestry.
·Bear Attacks in Nova Scotia, Department of Lands and Forestry.
·Moment black bear approaches group of hikers, sniffs their hair and even poses with them as they snap a selfie - before it calmly wanders off, Daily Mail.
·Black bears coming too close for comfort in Halifax-area neighbourhood, Atlantic CTV News.
· Two bear sightings in Southwestern Ontario tied to pandemic lockdown, The London Free Press.