Coexisting With Bears On Cortes Island

What we can learn about coexisting with bears on Cortes Island an interview with Sabina Mense Leader

Bear Sightings Are On The Rise

Bear sighting have been on the rise in BC over the last couple of years, more than doubling in many communities.  BC is bear country. And Cortes is no exception.  Bears have regularly swam over to feed on the fruits of abandoned orchards and spend some time on the island. This year, however, a young black bear over wintered. 

Why are we seeing so many bears all of the sudden?  Many conservation and wildlife experts theorize that the drier weather is bringing many predators, including bears, to areas where there is more food, water, and where it’s easier to smell out food sources. Others say it is just a continuation of the ongoing process of humans encroaching into bear habitat.  Things are changing though and climate change is behind at least some of these incidents says a story in the New York Times which suggests that bears in the Western US are hibernating less because of climate change.  A 2017 study finds that for every 1°C that minimum winter temperatures rise, bears hibernate six days fewer. In short, though, there are a lot of reasons and no specific answers as to why there are so many more bear sightings these last couple of years throughout BC. 

Bear Attacks Are Rare

Though the bear sightings are up, according to BC Conservation Officer Service, bear attacks are quite rare and despite the higher numbers, there has been no rise in attacks or dangerous encounters. The increase in bear sightings has led some conservation officers on Vancouver Island to shift away from warnings and education towards stiff fines for people who do not manage food attractants.

A Fed Bear Is A Dead Bear

Why this approach? Because a fed bear is a dead bear and a deadly bear.  This alludes to a very real truth… that while most bear encounters will result in bears leaving an area, bears can instead become more assertive or destructive or even change their hibernation or denning patterns when they start to associate humans and human activity with food. And while most people know now not to feed bears directly or to leave food out when they camp, what is less understood is what constitutes as a fed bear. And the number one way that people feed bears is through their garbage, says Sabina Leader Mense. 

Sabina Leder Mense

Sabina is a marine biologist living on Cortes whose usual work with carnivores is the Moon Snail, she jokes. Yet, she found her way to leading Cortes’s efforts to get more educated on coexisting with carnivores after her family dog was killed by wolves. She felt very responsible for endangering the wolves and used her biology experience and contacts to bring together Wildlife Conservation officers, the provincial veterinarian, and other wildlife experts to help create a plan for coexisting with wolves on the island. This resulted in a conference, continued education, and the Wolf Primer. So, when it became clear that a bear had overwintered on Cortes, Sabina responded by creating a Bear Primer. The bear primer has been endorsed by the Conservation Officer Service.

Cortes Is Black Bear Country

“Cortes Island is Black Bear Country,” she says. There are 150,000 black bears in British Columbia: all of B.C. is black bear country. Cortes is and has always been part of their territory, and some people say black bears have always over-wintered on the north part of Cortes. Either way, as people move and recreate more in bear habitat, we see bears more often, and “we are paying more attention now,” says Sabina.  Sabina with Friends of Cortes Island are just beginning a project to monitor and learn about bear activity on Cortes Island. As this project unfolds, you are invited to observe and send your sightings to FOCI at 250 935 0087 or If, however, you want to report bear encounters of concern, do that first to the COS at 1 877 952 RAPP (7277).

As we learn more about bears and their habits on Cortes Island, one of the things we already know is that black bears have amazing noses. They may have the best sense of smell of any land animal: 7 times better than a blood hound or 2,000 times better than a human (by estimation). Black bears have been observed to travel 18 kilometres in a straight line to a food source. Garbage is the top attractant for bears, says Sabina.  Once a bear finds its way to your property because of garbage—or because of unharvested fruit trees or accessible animal feed—they can then go to great lengths, including on one house on Cortes climbing through a wood shoot and onto the porch of the house, to find other food sources.

On Cortes Island, understanding this as bear country and understanding the power of a bear’s nose, then we can begin to behave in a way to reduce harmful encounters to both humans and bears. This is the premise of Sabina’s Bear Primer. 

The Bear Primer has Five Points to help keep “our bears WILD and to ensure the safety of islanders and bears.” 

1. Never Feed Bears & Secure All Bear Attractants

Garbage is the #1 bear attractant; In order to keep garbage and other food wastes from becoming an attractant: keep food out of the garbage and thoroughly wash all food/drink containers and packaging before placing in your garbage or recycling. Store garbage in a secure location inside; outside in bear resistant container/enclosure. Manage your compost properly to create odour free compost. Clean BBQ’s after every use; burn grills & remove grease traps; remain odour free!!!

There are a number of local initiatives happening on Cortes Island help get food waste out of our garbage stream. This is a problem for Cortes because of bear and other wildlife, because its expensive for us to ship our garbage off the island, and because we recently filled our local landfill (on Vancouver Island) and Cortes is throwing away more food waste than any other community in the whole Comox-Strathcona region, according to a waste audit done in September and October of 2017. According to the waste audit, only 30% of what Cortesians are throwing in the garbage is even garbage, most of it is food waste and the rest is recyclables.  NO FOOD WASTE should ever go into the trash.  To learn more about how to turn your bones into bio-char you can listen to the Folk University Talk “Building Soil Fertility with Local Resources” with Whitney Vanderleest, which you can find on Cortes Currents at Or if you want one of your neighbours to compost your food scraps in their hot, functioning compost bin, you can reach out to Whitney who has room for more compost or Kate Maddigan who can connect you with a network of neighbours accepting compost at  kate.maddigan at gmail dot com or reach out to me at  u [at] folku [dot] ca and I will hook you up with a neighbour to help. And if you need more guidance around recyclables…. you can also find a Folk U Talk Show with Brain from the recycling centre on everything you need to know about that 

2. Do not feed other wildlife.

Bird-feeders often become BEAR-feeders; please only feed birds during the winter months. Alternatively, bird baths & native flowering plants will support local birds.

3. Keep yourself safe.

If you encounter a bear, DO NOT RUN; back up slowly, speaking in a loud but low voice; give the bear space and do NOT make eye contact. When hiking/biking, travel in groups & keep talking to alert bears that you are there. Proactively carry bear spray (easily accessible, has not expired, know how to use it!). If you have a bear in your yard, retreat into your house and observe what is attracting the bear, so it can be immediately removed after the bear has left. 

4. Keep your pets safe.

Dogs must be leashed when walked; never walk dogs in areas with known bear activity. Feed pets in a secure location inside and keep your yard free of attractants, eg. bones. Store animal food in secure location inside or outside in bear resistant container or enclosure.

5. Practice Good Plant & Animal Husbandry

Harvest fruits from trees and bushes daily as they ripen; do NOT allow windfalls to accumulate on the ground. Proactively use electric fencing to protect your fruit crops, livestock, and possible even butchering and smoking areas.  DILIGENCE around fruit crops is critical to prevent bears from hanging around and next discovering your vegetable garden. Ensure livestock are in predator proof shelters at night and that enclosures and feeding areas are clean and free of attractants. After butchering livestock dispose of carcasses responsibly; buried deeply & well away from residential areas.

Top photo credit: Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

Originally published on Cortes This program was funded by a grant from the Community Radio Fund of Canada and the Government of Canada’s Local Journalism Initiative