By Roy L Hales
Curt Cunningham first encountered the Squirrel Cove Bear while it was still a cub. Not knowing where the creature’s mother was, Cunningham took refuge inside the Cove Restaurant. No mother bear appeared and the cub disappeared into the woods. That was a year or more ago.
“There have been signs of him ever since. There is scat most nights, often all over the yard, but he’s never caused much problem,” said Cunningham, owner manager of the Squirrel Cove General Store on Cortes Island.
Some months ago, a neighbour called Laurel Bohart over to look at some scat in their property. As she has not previously seen bear scat herself, Bohart asked Doreen Guthrie to help identify it.
“Now, having seen piles of what is obviously apple scat in my yard, I know exactly what they look like: human sized, looks like someone has been eating a lot of apples,” she added.
The raids begin
The number of incidents abruptly increased about two weeks ago.
“The bear broke into our back yard, via our fence, leaving a belly shaped hole, where it pressed down on the wiring. It came in, rifled through the compost and about five to ten pounds of apples off my back deck – because I didn’t know there was a bear. It ate all those, left five or six scat in the yard and exited the way it had come,” said Bohart.
Sandy Hoffman emailed that the bear “had been at Dan & Meg’s place a couple nights by the chickens.” This must be the Dan Soutch, who Laurel said chased it off at least twice. Both of these incidents were reported to the Conservation Office Service (CO).
Hoffman wrote that she lives beside Graham Blake. Consequently her dog “was very neurotic” on the night of Friday, Nov. 6, when the bear broke through his fence to get at the apples left on the ground. At 9 a.m. the following Monday, the “bear was caught passing through on Graham’s trail cam.”
Two days later, the bear raided Hoffman’s fenced yard in the early morning hours. It ate the “few remaining apples on tree” and left “lots of scat,” Hoffman said. Though the apples were gone, the bear returned at 10:35 that night. The bear was “hazed and ran.” This incident was also reported to the Conservation Office.
The bear raided another two houses that Friday.
“I saw an adult bear running away from me down our path at about 4:05 P.M., Nov. 13, ’20, while it was still light. Apparently we are the fifth Squirrel Cove Road neighbour to have a bear in our yard since Graham Blake’s webcam siting. It looks like the 300 salmon in a day in Basil Creek aren’t enough, so it’s been checking out apples & chicken coops. The lady at the Conservation Officer’s says to put away all attractants, but that bears can get into ANY container. Best!” Nancy Beach emailed.
According to Sandy Hoffman’s list, the bear was “eating rotten apples at Loyd & Nancy’s” and also returned to Bohart’s.
On the morning of Saturday, Nov. 14 the “bear ate thru garbage at Bobbi & Jason’s.”
Jason Thompson subsequently mentioned three raids on his property during the course of a week. He is a drone operator and the first incident occurred the night he went outside to make sure his craft was charged up for work the following morning. There was garbage strewn across the yard and he heard the bear’s frantic escape into the woods. Jason subsequently tried to protect his garbage by placing concrete blocks on top of the containers. That didn’t work.
There were more incidents the following Sunday. Though there were no remaining attractants, the bear returned to Sandy Hoffman’s in the early morning hours and Bohart’s, again, that evening.
Hoffman heard a gunshot at 7:30 p.m., but does not think it was unrelated to the bear visits.
Derek and Lore Mack-Mumford have lived in Squirrel Cove for twenty years. They have raised chickens and grown apples throughout that time, without any bear incidents.
Their daughter Leslie, and her husband Stephano Perdisa, live in a smaller house on the same property.
Returning from Campbell River, around lunchtime on Monday, Nov.16, Leslie found the door to her cellar burst open. Most of the apples stored inside had been eaten.
The bear attempted to access the apples stored inside the Mack-Mumford residence early the following morning. It tore at the siding. Derek responded by making noises, which caused the startled animal to flee. While neither Derek or Lore saw the bear, it snowed during the night and they found a trail of bear tracks circling their house.
“We are the strangers here,” they said, later.
The bears have been in this area for thousands of years. If we don’t want to attract them, we need to make our properties less accessible.
Leslie was putting up an electric fence around her chicken coop when Cortes Currents called. She did not have time to be interviewed.
Derek said they have a large garden as well, and the fence will probably cost a couple of thousand dollars.
“We’ve had that bear coming back for the last ten days, but it didn’t come back last night. We think it is because it is not finding anymore food. If there is no food for the bears to get into, it is not going to bother coming back,” said Bohart.
Enter the conservation officer
According to Brad Adams, a Conservation officer (CO) who normally works out of the Port McNeill office.
“The reports to the CO service have only been a week and a half to two weeks of phone calls, probably ranging in the 4-5 call range. A couple from the same property, where they are seeing the bear on a more regular basis. … We received reports about a bear, possibly two bears that have been attracted to apples left out and available to the bear … It doesn’t seem like the bear’s primary focus was chickens, it seems to be gravitating towards fruits,” Adams said.
There have also been reports of pets missing, which Adams said is more typically associated with wolf or cougar behaviour.
“If bears find themselves frequenting Squirrel Cove and Whaletown, it is going to be really difficult to manage them,” said Adams.
There are large quantities of natural fruits and free range livestock. No electric fencing is in place, to prevent access. Many outlying structures need to be repaired or replaced.
“This year has been a learning experience for people on Cortes who have not seen a bear in the last couple of years. We’ve seen two and always have the plus one rule. So if we’ve seen two, there could be three or four. There could be multiples. We are fairly close to the Mainland coast and Vancouver Island. It doesn’t take long for a bear to make its way there," Adams said.
Adams suspects Cortes could have both transient and resident bears.
“Cortes is ideal bear habitat. I would expect they are there all the time. Why the sightings are so few and far between could speak to the amount of natural food sources out in the green spaces,” said Adams.
“I expect you do get bears that swim out regularly, same as any of the other islands. The bears will go from island to island looking for food sources and if they don’t find any food sources or prime habitat on an island they’ll just move on the the next one," he added.
How many bears are there?
Sandy Hoffman posted on Facebook about the description of the bear.
“Things I’ve learned about our regular visitor, the Squirrel Cove bear… Had a visual of it under our apple tree from about 20 ft away. I had originally guessed a young male bear 150-200 lbs from this… but hard to guess with all the fur. Now a footprint showing the front paw to be about 4 inches wide… this roughly translates to a height of roughly 5 feet. This seems reasonable based on my visual. Also suggests the weight is likely closer to 150 lbs. I’m going with a 3 year old male. I think it now sounds different than the one Curt saw last year if he saw a little cub. This one is not that little although still not a mature bear.”
There were reports of a bear in Whaletown earlier this year, so CKTZ asked Bohart, “How do we know it’s not the Squirrel Cove Bear?”
“We don’t because the bears will roam where-ever their nose takes them. We’re calling them the Whaletown Bear, the Squirrel Cove Bear: they are Cortes bears. They might not actually live here, although [local biologist] Sabina [Leader Mense] is certain they do,*” she said.
“Anyway the bear we have at Squirrel Cove is probably a yearling, which means this years cub grown up. It’s been spotted down at Squirrel Cove Store, at Basil Creek eating fish and possibly on the beach – which might be a second bear. We don’t know," Bohart added.
Speaking as a taxidermist who has worked with about a hundred bears, Bohart added that the prints she saw probably belong to a female bear.
The Whaletown bear
There was supposedly another bear, in Whaletown, earlier this year. How do we know the Whaletown Bear is dead?
“We have a rumour. Someone heard a shot [one night] and the bear was never seen again,” said Bohart.
The corpse was supposed to go to the Klahoose First Nation, who would have used it for food. Bohart was to have taught people how to preserve the different parts of its body. None of that occurred.
Brad Adams knew more about this story, “We found the bear carcass, but couldn’t determine what happened based on the amount of decay that had already set in. It doesn’t take long in the summer, in the sun, for things to break down.”
Exhibit: ‘The Big Three: Cougars, Wolves and Bears.’
“We’ll be collecting ‘Big Three’ stories. We in Squirrel Cove have our own bear stories now. I have an imprint of the bear’s left fore paw in the plastic of a Sunshine Mix bale. Go figure!”
While the official opening date has not been set, the cougar, bear and wolf pelts Bohart contributed are already on display.
The Wild Cortes Exhibit at Linnaea Education Centre, 1255 Seaford Rd., is open noon to 3 p.m. every Saturday. COVID-19 protocols in place.
Changing bear behaviour
Bears normally pass through properties and disappear quickly when they see humans.
They are intelligent creatures, and once a bear learns that it is easy to obtain food around houses it is difficult to change its behaviour, according to the conservation office.
“The bear is not going to be able to distinguish between your blueberry plants and the ones that grow in the wild. If he finds something that is easily accessible he will utilize that food source,” said Adams.
“Our biggest recommendation is that anyone who has livestock – whether its pigs, goats, sheep or chickens – is that the area in which they are kept be electrified to prevent bears from getting in to the fields where they are kept. And the dwelling they reside in – whether it is a barn, chicken pen or some kind of run in pens – must be built in a structural manner so it is not easily accessible …” he added.
Adams said that everyone has to do their part to ensure that the bears stay safe and are kept away from dwellings to "prevent desensitized habitual behaviour.”
“We recommend that if anyone has fruit or vegetables, they pick them as they become ripe. If a bear is beginning to access a fruit tree or garden, the contents of the tree or garden need to be removed," he said.
Reasons bears keep returning
Bears do not frequent residential areas for two or three weeks unless there is a reason.
“That’s where we start looking at the residences. Are people leaving their garbage out? Or their fruit on the ground? Or not storing their fruit properly?”
Adams was not aware that the Squirrel Cove Bear had been in the area for a year or more.
“That’s where a couple of calls to the CO Service would really help. We’ve seen quite a bit … through generations of conservation officers. working with wildlife branch, their regional biologists and veterinarian specialists. We’ve developed a fairly string understanding of why and what the bears might there for,” said Adams.
“Knowing that would help us manage the attractant side of things, to prevent the bear’s behaviour from escalating to what it is,” he said.
Wildlife are attracted to a lot of things that most people would not think about. For example, a lot of dish detergents have fruit or floral scents.
“Bears have bitten into dish detergent containers because of the apple scent," Adams said. "They obviously found out it didn’t taste that good, but the aromas that come off of certain products does act as an attractant – whether the bear would consume it or not.”
He listed some common items that attract bears:
- “Hummingbird feeders are huge, they have a high sugar content.
- Bird feeders
- grain for livestock
- suet pucks
- laundry and dish detergent
- some petroleum products
There is an abundance of the wild foods, that bears are known to feast on, surrounding the Squirrel Cove General Store. The shoreline is full of oysters. Salmon spawn in Basil Creek. Bears eat many of the plants and berries found in the forest: salal branches and berries, wild flowers, leafy plants, salmonberries, huckleberries and blackberries.
What will happen to the Squirrel Cove bear?
Adams said it was up to locals to provide a "negative stimulus" to deter the bears.
“The longer we allow bears to be in the community, accessing natural or unnatural food sources, the more comfortable they get in and around buildings. We need to provide a negative stimulus. We need to make noise, use bear bangers, air horns, even whistles – banging pots and pans when bears get close to our residences because we want them to feel unwelcome," he said.
He appeared reluctant to say what will happen to the Squirrel Cove Bear(s) as the situation is still being assessed.
“There is always a threshold that we have to keep in mind. We are here to protect animals from people, but there is a threshold where we have to protect people from animals. So if a bear starts showing certain undesired behaviours where public safety is starting to become a risk, the bear has to be removed …” he said.
“This is where reporting early to Conservation Officers, through our RAPP line and providing us with bear, cougar or wolf updates throughout the year, helps us make a plan or assessment,” said Adams.
Call 1-877-952-7277 (RAPP) or #7277 on the TELUS Mobility Network. If the situation is not an emergency, report the incident online or contact the nearest Conservation Officer Service district office.
For fisheries violations related to salmon, contact Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) at 1-800-465-4336. You can also contact your local RCMP detachment or municipal police.
Links of interest:
- (Cortes Currents) articles about Cortes Island Bears
- (FOCI) Co-existing with Bears and Wolves
- (FOCI) Cortes Bear Primer
- (BC Government) Report All Poachers and Polluters (RAPP)
* Correction: This story originally said that Sabina Leader Mense reported seeing “a mother with cubs descending Green Mountain.” Mense’s article actually said “Sometime early April 2020, a black bear woke from hibernation on Cortes Island and wandered down from Green Mountain into Larsen’s Meadow, feeding on a bounty of spring food to appease a mighty appetite.”