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Low salmon runs lead to increased human-bear conflicts: B.C. study

In years where there was a decrease in salmon availability, researchers found an increase in the number of human-bear conflicts.

A female grizzly bear exits Pelican Creek on October 8, 2012 in the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

A female grizzly bear exits Pelican Creek on October 8, 2012 in the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

The number of conflicts between bears and humans is higher during years when there are fewer salmon returns in the area, a British Columbia study has found.

Scientists from Simon Fraser University, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the University of Victoria and the Hakai Institute carried out the study, which they say has important implications for wildlife management.

After analyzing 35 years of data on “conflict-killed” grizzlies in British Columbia— grizzlies killed due to a perceived threat to human safety— the researchers found the levels of conflict vary substantially from year to year.

The biggest factor determining yearly conflict patterns? The natural availability of food each year, they found.

During years when there was a 50-per-cent decrease in salmon availability, the researchers saw an average increase of 20 per cent in the number of conflicts involving the salmon-eating population of grizzlies.

Jennifer Walkus, a bear researcher and resident of Wuikinuxv village, said she has witnessed firsthand the link between salmon runs and human-bear conflicts.

In 1999, she said the community saw an unprecedented decline in the availability of salmon.

"We have lived with these bears for millennia without problems, but following this collapse we watched conflict levels go through the roof," she said in a news release. "The loss of salmon to our river not only took food off our tables, but resulted in bears in our backyards."

The researchers also found that, across the province, 82 per cent of conflicts happened while bears were fattening up for hibernation— a time when bears need food the most.

Although attacks on humans on rare, the researchers found that 91 per cent of those attacks also took place during the pre-hibernation period, suggesting a link between food availability and conflict in all bear populations with or without access to salmon.

The researchers say the findings suggest a need to rethink common approaches to conflict management, like killing bears through trophy hunts, which the study found had no measurable effect on conflict patterns.

Instead, the researchers say governments should put more effort into protecting salmon runs and working with residents to conflict-proof their neighbourhoods in an effort to reduce human-bear conflicts.

The study was published Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports.

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