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Parks Canada chopping down fruit trees in Field to stop luring hungry bears

Parks Canada is chopping down mountain ash trees to prevent hungry bears from getting an easy snack, while Canmore election candidates weigh in on the contentious fruit tree issue that has led to relocation of five bears so far this fall
1007 Bear in a tree
A black bear looks for food in a tree in a residential area in Field, B.C. PHOTO COURTESY OF CRAIG CHAPMAN

FIELD – Parks Canada is leading by example by cutting down mountain ash trees that have been luring several hungry black bears into the village of Field this fall for an easy feast before winter’s hibernation.

Of the approximately 30 mountain ash trees that have been mapped in Field, six are on Parks Canada property and are being chopped down imminently, with the remainder of the berry-producing trees scattered throughout various private yards.

David Laskin, a wildlife ecologist for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit, said the removal of the mountain ash trees is in response to having numerous black bears persist in the townsite feeding on these berries and the risk that poses to both bears and people.

On top of the trees being removed on Parks’ property, he said about 20 private residences were quick to take Parks Canada up on its offer to remove the mountain ash trees and replace them with non-fruit trees such as western larch, Douglas maple or aspen – free of charge.

“There’s been really good uptake with residents and many of them have voluntarily asked to have their trees removed, which is great,” said Laskin.

“Given the ongoing persistence of bears in the townsite this year – the mountain ash was the obvious reason they were there – therefore it was obvious to remove the food attractants.”

At least four black bears have been eating mountain ash berries this fall.

Laskin said mountain ash have always been available as a food source for bears in Field, but the bruins have not generally gone after them.

However, he said calorie-rich wild buffaloberries are not as abundant this year and the mountain ash trees have produced a bumper crop.

“The bears are turning to these trees as an easy alternative food source,” said Laskin.

“This is something that could easily happen in subsequent years as it has occurred in the past.”

For residents who wish to keep their mountain ash trees, Parks Canada will offer assistance to keep bears away.

Laskin said mitigations will include wrapping tree trunks with tin to prevent bears from climbing the trees, or temporarily erecting electric fences around the bigger, bushier trees.

In addition to removing the food attractants, he said Parks Canada has been hazing bears out of Field to prevent them from becoming habituated.

“Parks Canada staff have been stationed in Field to dissuade black bears from accessing mountain ash,” he said.

“We want to sure they are not having a comfortable experience when they are within the village.”

In Canmore, fish and wildlife officers estimate at least 13 black bears continue to get into crabapple trees and mountain ash throughout the community.

At least 23 bears have been captured throughout the Cochrane fish and wildlife district, which includes Canmore and the Bow Valley. The department hasn't provided the exact number of relocations from Canmore, but at least five, including a female bear with two cubs, were relocated over a week period at the end of September.

It is an offence to have animal attractants on private property in Canmore under the wildlife attractant bylaw. This includes fruit from crabapple trees or mountain ash or accumulating on the tree, bush or ground.

However, the bears continue to narrow in on the many fruit trees that remain.

Town of Canmore officials say they have not sought a legal opinion on whether it can force private property owners to remove fruit trees, and there are no plans at this time to update the wildlife attractant bylaw that was last amended in 2019.

Greg Burt, the Town of Canmore’s manager of protective services, said the Town can, however, issue tickets to private property owners that are in contravention of the wildlife attractant bylaw. The fine is $250.

“We are still taking a compliance-based approach to fruit trees for first-time offences,” he said.

“We either inform the owner of the property that they need to remove the fruit from the tree or remove the tree completely.”

The Town of Canmore has also run several yearly educational campaigns aimed at wild co-existence, including advertising its fruit tree removal incentive program that covers half the removal cost to a maximum of $300 for homeowners in high priority areas.

“This year we ran a wildlife co-existence campaign along with the Town of Banff that focused on a number of issues, one of which was specifically aimed at fruit trees,” Burt said.

During last week's virtual environment forum, Canmore candidates for the Oct. 18 municipal election were specifically asked if they would support a bylaw to force the removal of fruit-bearing trees and wildlife attractants on private properties in town.

Many pointed to more education as the way to go, even though the Town of Canmore and Bow Valley WildSmart have made exhaustive efforts in recent years to educate.

However, candidate Wade Graham was open to the idea of removing trees.

“We saw countless numbers of bears in town this year with a poor berry crop in the wild lands;  they were coming into town to see what they could harvest here, unfortunately,” he said.

“The bear situation this fall has been one of the worst that I can remember. Luckily, there was no terrible interactions and everybody played well together for the most part.”

However, Vijay Domingo said the question is a challenging one and a divisive topic in the community, noting he favoured education over enforcement.

He said he would prefer to monitor the situation from year to year “because these things do happen in cycles.”

“When we simply don’t educate and continue to work through that process and get community buy-in, we end up with an adversarial moment with a resident where we’re chopping down their tree and they’re trying to stand in front of it,” he said.

“That is not the engagement process that I normally would support unless it’s an extreme situation… always going right to enforcement is such a hard thing for the Town and administration to enforce.”

Jeff Mah said he would like to see a more layered bylaw as well as a big education push to remove fruit from the trees or the ground as opposed to removing the entire tree.

“We are having climate crisis, and more greenhouse gas, and the more trees we have that’s a good thing,” he said.

“I feel we can go to a graduated process first and still maintain the beauty of our community and try and find a balance there.”

Incumbent Jeff Hilstad said he doesn’t believe the Town can legally ask people to remove existing trees, but the legality of that could be looked at.

But he also questioned where the line is drawn on wildlife attractants, pointing to gardens.

“Retroactively going back and saying ‘you have to remove that tree at your cost’ is just something I’d want to get some legal advice on first,” Hilstad said.

“We can put a bylaw into the future that says ‘no fruit-bearing trees within our land use bylaw and such’ so that going forward future developments don’t have them.”