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British Columbia Cormorant Island put on alert due to grizzly bear sightings

The arrival of grizzly bears in Alert Bay is thought by wildlife experts to be further proof that B.C.’s coastal grizzlies are expanding their range.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Parents were driving their children to school in Alert Bay and teachers weren't allowing students to play outside at recess on Monday after two grizzly bears swam to the small community on Cormorant Island.

It is the first time grizzly bears have been seen on the island, where about 1,500 people live. The tiny island is located in the middle of Queen Charlotte Strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

Justin Beadle, chief administrative officer for the village, said people are being cautious until the newly arrived bears are captured and taken away.

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The arrival of the bears in Alert Bay is thought by wildlife experts to be further proof that B.C.'s coastal grizzlies are expanding their range.

"Cormorant Island is nice in that it has no large resident predators – so no cougars, no bears that live full-time here," said Mr. Beadle. "There have been a couple of black-bear sightings over the years with the smaller black bears making their way onto the island then heading off. But this is the first time in anyone's memory that there has been a grizzly bear, much less two of them at the same time."

The bears were first sighted on Friday evening, apparently after having swum over from nearby Pearse Islands. Over the weekend they rambled around the small island and at times walked down residential streets.

"We are a 4 1/2-square-kilometre island so it is pretty much in everyone's backyard," Mr. Beadle said of the bear incident.

Just a few blocks from his office Monday afternoon, RCMP and B.C. conservation officers were trying to "round up" the two grizzlies by herding them with bear bangers toward live traps set up in a campground at the edge of town.

Alert Bay is about 450 kilometres north of Victoria and connects to Port McNeill on Vancouver Island by ferry.

Although grizzly bears are common on B.C.'s central mainland coast, until recently they have rarely been sighted on the islands that lie between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

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"It's been a combination of excitement, curiosity and trepidation," said Mr. Beadle in summing up the community's feeling about the new visitors. "People are amazed that they are here. It certainly is very interesting to see grizzly bears but everyone in the community would like it to end positively and for everyone that means they leave the island alive and are relocated."

Dr. Chris Darimont, Hakai-Raincoast Conservation Scholar at the University of Victoria, said grizzly bears used to be limited to the mainland, but they have been island hopping in the past decade.

"We've been tracking this colonization of islands by not only males but also females with young," he said. "It is increasing geographically through more and more islands. It is increasing with apparent frequency, so it looks like a very real pattern of this shift or expansion of range."

In a research paper published in 2004 with co-author Christina Service, Dr. Darimont concluded grizzly bears had recently moved on to 10 coastal islands where they hadn't been found before.

He said that movement now appears to have spread farther south on the coast.

Dr. Darimont said it isn't clear what is making the bears expand their range.

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"Something in the environment is changing or has changed," he said. "That's about the only thing we can say with certainty. Whether it corresponds to climate change or some threshold of logging [that's been reached] on the mainland, or a decline in salmon I can't say. There are potentially several drivers of this shift."

Dr. Darimont said one hypothesis is that grizzlies are expanding their range because the bear population is growing, but he doesn't favour that explanation and feels bears may be moving to find food.

"I can't see a growing [bear] population against a background of salmon declines. Compared to the last century, especially on the south coast, there is an order of magnitude less salmon so the alternative hypothesis … is when there are food shortages, individuals go further afield to find sources of food. So that could be it," he said.

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