“Bears are always hungry and following their noses, and when a bear gets a taste of human food, whether it’s actual food or garbage or fruit from trees, they associate that food source with people,”
CANMORE – The entire life of bears revolves around food.
With a keen sense of smell, opportunistic bears sniff out human food, garbage, bird seed, pet food, greasy barbecues, and in what is becoming an increasing problem in Canmore, ripe and decaying fruit.
“Bears are always hungry and following their noses, and when a bear gets a taste of human food, whether it’s actual food or garbage or fruit from trees, they associate that food source with people,” said Nick de Ruyter, program director for Bow Valley WildSmart.
“They will just keep coming back to the places they know they can easily get that food, whether it’s a campground or fruit in your backyard or a sandwich off a picnic table at a day-use area.”
In Canmore, it is against the law to let fruit or berries accumulate on trees, bushes, or the ground, and new fruit-bearing trees or bushes cannot be planted. Fines can range between $250 and $10,000.
In a bid to lead by example, the Town of Canmore had six fruit trees cut down on municipally-owned lands on Aug. 2 to encourage more residents to buy-in to the fruit tree removal incentive program and to help kick off the Keep Wildlife Alive ambassador project.
Two ambassadors – part of the joint Town of Canmore and Bow Valley WildSmart project – will be going door to door in downtown areas to educate people about the importance of removing wildlife attractants like fruit trees.
“We want to remove all wildlife attractants from town,” said de Ruyter.
“As fruit is already starting to appear on trees around town, the time to remove fruit trees is now, not in September when it ripens and there are already bears in the trees.”
The Town’s fruit tree removal incentive program covers 100 per cent of removal costs to a cap of $500.
Caitlin Van Gaal, supervisor of environment and sustainability for the Town, said three-quarters of this year’s $10,000 pot of money for the incentive program has already been allocated.
“The interest in the program has been super high this year,” she said. “We’ve already removed 50 trees from town.”
However, there is a long way to go. A survey in 2018 identified there are approximately 2,500 fruit trees town-wide.
Fruit trees were removed from Town-owned lands around Elevation Place last year and Alpine Precision cut down six mountain ash last week – two at Rotary Friendship Park, two on Sixth Street and two at Canmore Seniors’ Centre.
Mayor Sean Krausert, who was present when the trees were coming down, said he hopes residents take advantage of the tree removal program, which is a key part of human-wildlife coexistence in the community.
“In order to coexist well, we have to make sure we are looking after our space so as to not attract wildlife,” said the mayor, who was a member of the Bow Valley human-wildlife coexistence roundtable.
“We also have to make sure we are not intruding into their space, and through that, we are able to minimize the conflict between people and wildlife and that protects both the animals and people.”
Funds for the fruit tree removal incentive program are set aside in budget every year, but whether or not the overall level of funding will be increased into the future to allow removal of more trees more quickly will likely be talked about at 2024 budget deliberations.
“If there’s more demand than we had funds last year, I expect it would increase,” said Krausert.
“But we will look for advice from administration on that based on the up-take of this year’s program.”
Hungry black bears can eat up to 20,000 calories per day and de Ruyter said fruit trees in Canmore are a calorie-rich and easily accessible food source for bears.
“A tree full of crab apples is a lot of calories and very worthwhile for a bear versus, say, a small raspberry bush,” he said.
“They’d be done with that in 20 seconds whereas a fruit tree they could spend hours feeding … the more calories the more they will go for it.”
Seven bears – six black and one grizzly – were relocated out of the Canmore area last year.
One black bear family that accessed fruit trees around town and garbage from a downtown commercial dumpster was relocated but quickly returned. Not wanting to risk public safety, the mama bear and two of her cubs were euthanized by Fish and Wildlife officers.
While de Ruyter said there is nothing that can be done to prevent bears from travelling through town as they move about their home ranges, he said residents can take action to make sure bears don’t get a food reward or find a reason to linger.
He said bears can often become more bold and brazen after getting a food reward, which puts the fate of the bear on the line and residents potentially in harm’s way.
“If these mothers are teaching their cubs to come into town for food, they’re going to end up paying the price. They are going to get destroyed or relocated,” said de Ruyter.
“It’s 30 per cent successful when you relocate bears, and when you do it in the fall, it’s almost zero per cent successful,” he added.
“It’s the worst time of year to relocate a bear, but it’s the time of year when most of these bears are getting into trouble in town.”
Caitlin Miller, protective services manager for the Town of Canmore, said municipal enforcement did targeted enforcement last year in the Cougar Creek area to make sure fruit was not attracting wildlife.
“We will be going and checking again on those properties who were issued warnings last year to see if they still have the wildlife attractant on the property this year,” she said.
The Town of Canmore is also tackling other attractants known to draw bears into town.
A bylaw change earlier this year put the onus on property owners to ensure all food service businesses, from restaurants, pubs and coffee shops, must have food waste diversion services in place – either by signing up for the municipality’s program or one of their choice.
Along with this, no commercial premises is allowed to put any food into a waste bin, and any containers or roll carts that are used must either be kept in an animal proof enclosure, be animal-proof or be a certified animal-resistant roll cart.
“It’s all part of a bigger picture. It’s not just one thing in isolation,” said Miller.
“There’s a lot of things that we’re focusing on in municipal enforcement to make sure that we’re addressing the removal of wildlife attractants.”