Heal Our Planet Earth
Grizzlies wake early from winter slumber
Other bears aren't bothering to go into hibernation, says biologist, citing climate change

By Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun
February 23, 2009

The extraordinary sight of four grizzlies walking around out of hibernation has perplexed the Wuikinuxv people living in the isolated aboriginal community of Rivers Inlet on the B.C. coast.

Louisa Morris, manager of the treaty office, said residents are not worried for their own safety, but wonder if something bigger is going on that might affect the long-term survival of grizzlies in the area.

She said elders in the community of about 75 have never seen anything like it. "It's very unusual," she said in a phone interview. "We're not nervous, but we're concerned."

Morris said the first grizzly appeared in the village in mid-January, wandering groggily around and falling asleep on one of the shelves in a storage shed near the Wannock River. The bear seemed healthy, did not cause any trouble and eventually left.

The next sighting involved a mother and young cub at Owikeno Lake, from which the Wannock River flows. A native fisherman left six trout behind for them.

The fourth bear was observed near the top end of the village. "It's scrawny and real skinny," Morris said. "You can see the ribs through the coat. It's really sad."

Morris said she can't explain the emergence of the four grizzlies. The winter has not been unusually warm, and salmon returned in healthy numbers to their community in the fall despite shortfalls elsewhere on the coast.

A log boom did break up in Owikeno Lake, she said, which resulted in a helicopter being used to collect the logs and creating unexpected noise in the area.

Ian McAllister of the environmental group Pacific Wild said he fears that grizzly mortality may be greater this winter along the coast due to poor salmon runs. He called for conservative management of grizzlies given the uncertainty. "How can the province be allocating for a trophy hunt this spring when so much uncertainty exists?"

Wayne McCrory, an independent bear biologist from the West Kootenays, said the helicopter disturbance may have caused some bears to leave their dens to look for new ones.

He also noted studies show that logging of prime old-growth trees such as cedars and hemlocks on hillsides can force bears to pick substandard dens beneath younger trees or old stumps left behind by logging, potentially resulting in their emergence before spring.

"That could be a factor if there's been an ample food supply," he said. "These primary denning sites are not protected under current logging plans."

McCrory said consideration should be given to supplemental feeding for such bears with natural foods, perhaps even freezer-burnt fish, so that they don't associate it with humans.

Supplemental feeding of deer is not unusual in harsh winters in some areas of B.C., he noted.

He said conservation officers have been noting black bears on the south coast not entering hibernation as usual in areas such as Whistler, the Fraser Valley and the North Shore, perhaps in response to climate change or a steady supply of garbage.

Kate Thompson, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Environment, said black bear calls continued in the Lower Mainland in December and petered off in January. Two callers reported bear sightings on Feb. 19, one in Coquitlam and one in Mission


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