Tuesday, 29 Nov 2022

Bella Coola First Nations members on patrol to reduce conflict between humans and grizzlies

This is the second installment in a three-part series focusing on the Bella Coola Valley’s grizzly bear population, and the issues surrounding it.

When the sun sets on Bella Coola, a remote community on British Columbia’s central coast, Roger Harris’ work day is just getting started.

“The concern is we do have possibly two to three bears in the community,” Roger told a Global News crew, who joined him and his team on the road for several nights. “There seems to be more [bears] this year and probably because of the fires we had. It seems they did get pushed this way because of the fires.”

Roger’s mission is to mitigate and reduce conflict between the region’s grizzly bears and its residents through largely non-lethal means. It’s a family affair and a joint effort involving fellow members of the local Nuxalk Nation. Roger and his daughter, Felicia Harris, are among others who spend their nights driving the towns’ streets on the lookout for grizzly bears.

“We usually try to push [the bears] to the outskirts of town and back to the river, where it has some food sources,” Felicia said, adding that their techniques to intimidate bears involve using car horns, bright lights and bear bangers.

“We’ve been patrolling and making sure the bears aren’t coming into town and causing any trouble,” she said. “It’s been working so far.”

The bears’ presence is a polarizing topic in the Bella Coola Valley. What’s driving the typically nocturnal omnivores’ increase in daytime activity closer to residential areas is also driving dispute among residents and animal welfare advocates. The Harris family and their night patrol counterparts, who call themselves the Coastal Guardian Watchmen, said they’re looking out for the welfare of both parties.

“Because if any conflict happens, either somebody gets injured or the bear gets put down,” Felicia said. “And we really don’t want that to happen.”

Some residents in Bella Coola B.C. have become so concerned about the growing grizzly bear population in the community, they have now set up nightly patrols to help protect themselves.

Their exhaustive work doesn’t go unnoticed. The bulk of it takes place between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m. during the bears’ estivation — or summer sleep — period.

“We’ve had some years where there were hardly any bears and some years where there seems to be a lot,” said Marshall Hans Jr., a Nuxalk Nation councillor. “I think it’s great to have the guys like Roger, that are dedicated to doing what they do, and they do a great job. It’s nice having them out. It’s just comforting to know that they’re there.”

The Coastal Guardian Watchmen are paid for their time, but Felicia said this highly unique graveyard shift is also a labour of love and plays a crucial role in the region.

“You can’t really go out of your house without running into [a bear]. It’s very alarming,” she said. “They’re running out of food resources.”

Noel Pootlass, the hereditary chief of Nuxalk Nation, agrees.

“Three years ago, it started. Last year was bad and this is the worst year ever,” Pootlass said of the bear activity in neighbourhoods. “We really feel that, for the safety of our Nation, the patrolling helps a lot.”

Resident Patrick McNamara said the bears’ presence has become a divisive fact of life for those living in the Bella Coola Valley.

“They don’t have any fear of us whatsoever and they’ve become acclimatized to us,” said McNamara. “It’s a problem right now because it’s dividing the community. It’s the biggest issue down here. It’s great having the bears and it’s great having that resource, but we have to remember there are people with kids on those properties.”

That’s one of the factors that motivates the Coastal Guardian Watchmen to return to the streets, night after night.

“[The bears] are way too comfortable,” Felicia said. “I enjoy keeping our people safe. I don’t want our kids or elders getting injured.”

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