Many people believe there are more bears in and around Hay River this summer.
One of those people is Albert Bourque, and he should know.
Bourque is the regional environmental co-ordinator with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), and has been dealing with bears for decades.
There won’t be an exact total of bear calls to ENR’s wildlife emergency line until the end of the season.
“But compared to the previous couple of summers, there’s no comparison,” said Bourque.
As if to emphasize that point, he had to briefly halt a telephone interview with The Hub to take a report of another bear sighting on Vale Island.
While Bourque may not have exact numbers, he said there has been a “pretty sizeable” increase.
Andre Chabot spotted one of those bears in his backyard on Aug. 17.
“It was funny,” said the teacher. “I was at the kitchen table doing some work and all of a sudden I heard my cat jump on the deck, like running crazy.”
Chabot looked to see what was spooking his cat, which was fixated on something, and he spotted a bear walking from behind a shed.
The bear wasn’t in the yard for long, but long enough for Chabot to take some photos.
It was the first time he had ever seen a bear on the Pine Crescent property.
“There probably are a lot more bears around town that usual for this time of that year,” he said. “I think everybody knows in Canada that, if you live in the bush, close to fall time bears tend to be curious and tend to be hungry.”
Chabot said the incident has not made him scared, but a little insecure going about in the yard, especially since he has children who play there.
“I think for the next couple of weeks we’ll be careful until the snow falls,” he said.
Bourque offers a number of explanations for the increase in bear sightings.
In August, bears are into hyperphagia – hyper eating, essentially – and that runs until about the third week of September. They pack on as much fat as they can before denning.
Bourque said Hay River is also located in some of the best bear habitat in the NWT because of its river delta, and river and lake shorelines.
“That produces an abundance of forage species, and in particular berries,” he said. “You go along the Hay River and I’ve never seen Saskatoon berries like this year. They’re the size of and growing in clusters like grapes.”
That bumper crop of berries may be due to the wet weather this summer.
Bourque also pointed to forest fires over the last couple of years.
“Without a doubt, there have been a good number of animals displaced through habitat loss just from the number of fires, because their favourite forage species in late summer are berries that grow on shrubs,” he said, noting the bears then search for berries.
Bourque also noted the landfill’s electric fence – designed to help keep bears away from the town – has not been operating properly this summer.
“This year, it hasn’t been maintained to the standard that would be an effective bear deterrent,” he explained. “It has to be maintained at 7,000 volts of electricity or higher.”
Bourque said the fence line has to be brushed a couple of times throughout the summer because anything leaning against the wires and grass will draw down the current, but brushing has not happened largely because of the now-settled strike against the town.
The current is about 2,000 volts, which is not enough to keep a bear out, he said. “Bears are getting in there.”
The ENR official has discussed the problem with the town.
“There’s definitely a correlation between the lack of effectiveness of that fence right now and an increase in bear activity,” Bourque said.
ENR has captured and relocated five bears this summer in the Hay River, Enterprise and Sandy Lake area.
Five bears have also been destroyed.
“We do it selectively,” said Bourque. “It’s animals that have gotten onto human food. It’s a pattern of behaviour that is very difficult to break.”
His advice to town residents is to help keep food waste away from bears. That includes keeping garbage inside until it is to be picked up and taking care with recyclables.
“I see bags of recyclables all over the place,” said Bourque. “And the natural food sources for bears contain a lot of sugar and so do the residues in recyclables – so pop cans, beer cans, wine bottles, all those things. They are very good bear attractants. They don’t provide much in the way of a food reward, but it’s an incentive for a bear to stick around in a yard and search for food.”
Like many other people, Mayor Andrew Cassidy has heard the concern that there are more bears in town.
“Maybe it’s just an odd year,” Cassidy said. “In nature, things are cyclical. Maybe we’re just seeing a cyclical trend where there’s a few more bears in the area. It’s really hard to say.”