POLITICS

Bear encounters in Fredericton: is recession in United States partly to blame?

07/20/2013 05:00 EDT | Updated 09/18/2013 05:12 EDT
FREDERICTON - The financial downturn in the United States might be having an unforeseen affect in New Brunswick — an increase in the black bear population.

And in the Fredericton area, hungry bears are causing concern for residents as more of the wild animals take their search for food into residential neighbourhoods.

Shawna Till, who cares for preschool children in her home, is among those who have seen a bear in the city. When the bear prowled around her house on Monday, the children she cares for were inside napping. The bear feasted on berries from a bush just a couple of metres from the children's outdoor play area.

"It was scary," said Till, adding that the bear has been spotted nearby in recent days and doesn't appear to fear humans. "It was right by the toys that I have outside."

Till said the Department of Natural Resources told her that she was the 160th person from the Fredericton area to report a bear this year. She has been on a waiting list for one of the four live traps used in the area.

Kevin Craig, a wildlife biologist for New Brunswick's Department of Natural Resources, says figures aren't kept on the number of bear encounters, but there has been a recent increase.

He said fewer Americans are taking vacations to hunt the bears in the province, which could be partly behind the increase in the number of encounters between bears and humans.

"Those hunts are considered to be vacations, so those are the first things to go in times of economic stress," said Craig, adding that people who don't live in New Brunswick take about 70 per cent of the black bears killed by hunters.

Craig said there has also been an increase in the habitat available to bears as old farmland has been allowed to grow over and become forest.

As a result, the bear population in the province is about 17,000, up from about 12,000 in the late 1990s.

Craig said the hunt has taken about 1,700 black bears annually out of the population over the last three or four years, but before that it took just over 2,000 bears a year.

The bears usually wander back into the woods, Craig said, but if they become a nuisance or aggressive, they are trapped and moved to a new area. He said the department has about 30 live traps for use around the province.

Ed Caissie and his wife Cathie have seen plenty of bears over the last 30 years in their neighbourhood on the outskirts of Fredericton.

When the couple moved to the city from Ontario, their house was the first in the subdivision and was surrounded by forest.

Soon after they moved in, a bear became aggressive in its search for food and ripped a screen off a door. Caissie shot and killed it, something he still regrets.

"We have to co-exist as much as possible," he said.

Caissie said there are now about 30 homes in the subdivision, but the bears still frequent the area.

"We just enjoy them as they are outside sniffing around and they wander off into the woods," he said. "They don't bother anything or destroy anything because we take our bird feeders in at night and we don't leave garbage out.

Craig said bears look for an easy meal, so removing things like garbage and bird feeders is the first step to reducing the number of human-bear encounters. Residents also need to make sure that family pets aren't left loose to chase a bear, he added.

Physical attacks by bears in New Brunswick are rare, said Craig.

In 1997, a woman in Salt Springs was bitten and badly injured by a bear while out walking her dogs. The dogs chased the bear, but then the bear turned and chased the dogs, right back to the woman.

Craig said if you encounter a bear, don't run and don't play dead.

"You should simply back away slowly, maintain eye contact with the bear, and if you feel threatened then raise your arms over your head and speak in a clear human voice to the bear so that it can identify you as an animal," Craig said.

He said the bear will usually leave and go back into the woods.