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Mark Hume

In B.C.'s wilderness, where the wild things aren't Add to ...

The grizzly bear that wildlife photographer, Roberta Olenick, knew as Eva had a rich, dark chocolate coat with a frosting of blonde on her face.

Eva was a gentle and patient mother to her cubs, which she taught to fish for salmon on the Bella Coola River.

Over the years, Ms. Olenick came to know Eva's habits so well she could always count on finding her during her photography trips to the valley, which is famous for its big grizzly bears, on British Columbia's central coast.

But then Eva vanished - and so too did a lot of other Bella Coola bears Ms. Olenick had grown accustomed to seeing.

To find out what happened to Eva, Ms. Olenick filed access to information request with the B.C. Ministry of Environment, to get records of bear kills in the Bella Coola Valley.

She didn't find confirmation of Eva's death - but what she did find shocked her.

In the documentation were pages and pages of "problem wildlife" reports - effectively the death certificates for about 20 grizzly bears that were put down by Conservation Officers and others in the Bella Coola Valley over two years.

"In 2007, nine or ten … grizzlies were control-killed as problem bears in the Bella Coola compared to six killed by legal hunters. In 2008, ten grizzlies were control-killed as problem bears … and four killed by legal hunters. …Thus, in the Bella Coola Valley, control kills are the most significant known source of human-caused mortality of grizzlies," she says.

Provincewide, according to the statistics, 1,013 grizzlies have been killed as problem bears since 1979. That averages out to 33 grizzlies a year, but over the past 15 years, the rate has climbed, to an average of 48 killed annually.

In reviewing the records, Ms. Olenick became convinced that most of the killings were preventable. People shot bears that were attracted by fish left lying about, they shot bears that came to feed in fruit trees that hadn't been fenced, and they shot bears that broke into chicken coops.

"In my opinion, with few exceptions, the bears that were killed as problem bears were not really much of a problem at all," she says.

"What is apparent is that in most cases, the deaths of these bears were easily preventable by proper bear-smart, bear-proofing procedures and a modicum of tolerance.

One idiot local resident killed a mother and three cubs because they took some salmon that he had left in a tub out on his porch during a record low salmon year. Another local resident killed a bear because it was up in his apple tree," said Ms. Olenick. "It is all very sad and points to a need for strict laws requiring people to remove bear attractants, as well as proper enforcement of those laws."

The records show that the man who killed a bear because it was in his tree, told the conservation officer "he is not into removing fruit from his apple tree when it is not ready."

Nor was he into electric fences. But killing bears wasn't a problem.

The man who shot the bear and two cubs left salmon on his back porch knowing bears were in the area.

A deer hunter shot a grizzly that charged him. That was understandable, but when the conservation officers investigated they found the bear had been guarding the remains of a cow a rancher had butchered in a nearby field.

The hunter said the bear died slowly and he regretted taking its life.

"He was in agony, on his side, half curled and breathing heavily. … I do feel sad I had to shoot him but there was no choice whatsoever," he said in a statement to conservation officers.

Ms. Olenick is not asking that people not defend themselves when attacked by bears.

Her point is that the rancher who left the dead cow in the field, just like the man who left the salmon on his back porch, and the farmer who refused to fence his fruit trees, all set the stage for the deaths of bears.

It's not clear what happened to Eva. But the disturbing Ministry of Environment reports Ms. Olenick unearthed in her search for answers, show that the problem bears aren't really the problem at all - it's the people.

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