Bear cub exposed in old-growth stump.

The need to protect Black Bear dens on Vancouver Island

Unlike their Mainland cousins, Vancouver Island’s Black Bears make their dens almost exclusively in large-diameter old trees, stumps, logs, or root wads. Dens are normally left dormant for a while after use, due to parasite infestation and the need to escape predators. However a study in the Nimpkish Valley, south of Port McNeill, found that 72% of the dens were reused over a 15 year period. In one case, the den was occupied during four winters. 

Screenshot of Mark Worthing taken during the interview

“Many bear dens are being destroyed. Helen Davis, the scientist that worked on this, did a survey in southwest Vancouver Island. In an area where she would have normally expected numerous bear dens to exist and to be used, there was only one den that was still usable after the logging had gone through. We are losing large numbers of bear dens, and they’re not being replaced because the second growth forest that comes back is not being allowed to get large enough to accommodate bear dens. They need the big trees to have  holes that are big enough for the bears to get in and out of,” asserted Calvin Sandborn, Senior Counsel at the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre

He is also the supervising lawyer of a report detailing what it would take to protect the bear dens in BC’s forests.

Three of Sandborn’s students prepared this submission at the request of Helen Davis and Sierra Club BC.

“The Environmental Law Centre is a class that is offered at the Faculty of Law at UVic where law students are learning to be advocates for the environment and to act for environmental groups and First Nations community groups that are concerned about the environment. In this case, we were looking at the question of how the law could be changed to better protect bears,” explained Sandborn.

Mark Worthing, of Sierra Club BC, said, “Part of the reason we decided  to take on this project, is that our field work is mostly on Vancouver Island, but also in the Great Bear Rainforest. To a lesser degree in other places in B.C. Not only were we finding bear dens in at-risk forests that were slated for logging, but we were finding destroyed bear dens or lone single bear dens left in clear cuts and things like that. So we thought, ‘dang, this is a problem.’” 

Sierra Club BC volunteers taking measurements on empty den tree – Photo by Mark Worthing

He asserted that “bears are everything’ in the forest. They are a key apex predator that define the nature of predator/prey relationships. They also play a key in dispersing nutrients and thus expediting the carbon sequestration process.

“Black Bears play a huge role in seed dispersal. A lot of berry seeds will pass right through the bear and come out the other end, still ready to sprout with a pile of fertilizer laying there for it for the next season.”

Worthing said bears play a vital role in dispersing salmon nutrients and thus expediting the carbon sequestration process.

“They drag that salmon back into the forest Then those nutrients from the salmon seed the soils and the mycelium networks, and then eventually up into those trees where you can track nitrogen and potassium and things in the wood and the leaves and the branches of the tree itself from the dispersal of black bears and grizzly bears.”

“As new studies come out, we see up to 50% higher carbon sequestration rates in forests where salmon spawn, than in forest where salmon do not spawn.”

Bear den bedding, pulled in to den to create insulative nesting material inside. Photo by Mark Worthing

A recent report from the Forest Practises Board, states, “Threats to Black Bears identified by the BC Government and bear biologists 20 years ago continue today, and include reduced habitat area due to land development and high road densities; widespread decline in food supply and specifically on the coast, declining denning opportunities.These threats are expected to increase as land development continues on Vancouver Island, potentially increasing the risk of a declining black bear population.”

Worthing pointed out that there are no metrics that allows researchers to definitively state whether Vancouver Island’s Black Bear population is in decline, or not. The provincial government is just conducting its first population study. 

However their numbers are definitely lower close to urban areas and where their habitat is being heavily impacted by forestry.

“Part of the importance of retaining bear dens on the landscape is to make sure that we’re applying the precautionary principle around management practices and forestry prescriptions on the island. So by the time government scientists finally get the funding they need to actually do studies that could actually your question, it’s not too late.”

Chief Rande Cook, ‘Namgis Hereditary Chief An’anxwisa’gamayi, and Helen Davis repairing a logged den tree – Photo by Mark Worthing

As Sierra Club BC was grappling with these questions, Worthing decided to reach out to Helen Davis.

“She’s considered the foremost biologist that focuses specifically on den ecology, namely with black bears.”

Her organization, Artemis Wildlife Consultants. provided the photo of a bear cub that is on the cover of ‘Protecting Bear Dens in BC Forests.’

It is in the middle of a stump that was recently cut and there is still sawdust on the cub. 

Worthing doesn’t know the full story behind that picture, but insists that this would have been an exceptional circumstance. Bears are not usually inside trees when they are cut down, ‘Nobody wants that.’ He thinks the cub was probably inside an old nurse log stump in the midst of a second growth forest. The loggers most likely were not aware of the den until after they cut it down. He described this as a nightmare scenario. 

“That’s the last thing you want to have happen, but you have to remember it’s not illegal to log a bear den on Vancouver Island right now. This is the issue, bear dens are certainly being logged on Vancouver Island and around BC,” he said.

Sandborn observed that there are laws protecting bears in Haida Gwaii, and in the Great Bear Rainforest. Those are the models they cite for the kind of protection they’re calling for across the province. 

Loggers left this den tree in their cutblock, but none of the surrounding forest that the bear needs – Photo by R, Weir, Artemis Wildlife Consultants

“The laws that we’re proposing are pretty simple. Amending the Wildlife Act to prohibit the destruction of bear dens and to require that when logging is done around bear dens that there be a protective area, 30 metres of untouched forest around the den,” he explained. “The reason for that is you have to have escape trees. If the mother and the cub are attacked by a predator when they are outside and can’t get back to the den, they need to have trees that are escape routes.”

“Also you need to have an area of intact forest for one hectare around the bear den tree just to prevent wind from taking it down. The other rule that we’re proposing is that there’d be a seventy-five metre separation between any roads and the bear den, so that the bears are not disturbed by traffic.”

He pointed out that these protections are already in place in Haida Gwaii and the Great Bear Rainforest because of the strong First Nations presence. 

Worthing explained that even in those areas, exceptions are made if a bear den tree is considered dangerous, or its removal is imperative because of  road engineering requirements.

Sandborn asserted, “Everybody knows what you need to do to protect bear dens. Go out and do a survey. Make sure that your employees are trained so that you can identify bear dens when they see them. Require  that those trees be tagged and identified, so that they’re not taken down and that the reserve area is preserved around them. Then manage those areas so that you’re not disturbing the bears during sensitive times of their life cycle.”

Baby grizzly bear. Photo by Jeff Reynolds, Maple Leaf Adventures

Worthing added, “We’re calling for a wildlife act amendment here to protect Black Bears, but fundamentally the long promised regime change around forestry to prioritize ecosystem based values is the bigger picture at play here. Black Bears need old growth forest. They need smarter modern forestry practices moving into the future with second growth forest. So we’re calling for a full regime change of forestry practices in BC, starting with immediate deferrals on remaining old growth. Then working towards better forestry prescriptions in the future.” 

As our interview came to an end, Sandborn made an offer, “If any of your listeners, or readers, want a law student to work on an environmental issue, we have lots of young students that are ready to save the world. The price is right for these students. It’s free.” 

Top image credit: Picture used on the cover of ‘Protecting Bear Deb=ns in BC Forests’ provided by Helen Davis’ company, Artemis Wildlife Consultants.

Sign-up for Cortes Currents email-out:

To receive an emailed catalogue of articles on Cortes Currents, send a (blank) email to subscribe to your desired frequency: