Conservation authorities are warning North Island residents to steer clear of a male grizzly bear that’s been spending time around popular campgrounds north of Campbell River.
As of Friday morning, the young grizzly was last spotted at Little Bear Bay, a provincial recreation site located about 57 km northwest of Campbell River by road. The bear itself is not so little. Conservation officer James Hilgemann estimated that it weighs roughly 350-400 pounds.
He urged people to stay away, as frequent interaction with people will eventually result in conservation authorities killing the animal. Of course, it’s also risky for humans.
“I can’t stress enough, keep your distance,” he said. “Don’t get a selfy with the bear. It might be your last.”
Officials from the province closed the Little Bear Bay campsite after the grizzly was first spotted there last week, putting up warning signage and erecting barricades.
But that didn’t stop a dozen curious onlookers from gathering perhaps 100 feet away from creature on the evening of May 17. The rubberneckers were promptly evicted and given a warning.
“The barricade was down, and we evicted 12 lookie-looers that had obviously disobeyed the signage,” Hilgemann said, adding that someone had even set up a pup tent. “There will be no more warnings, it will all be violation tickets from here on in.”
Anyone caught accessing a closed site without authorization is liable to get a $115 penalty for a first offence, he said.
He described the bear as indifferent to humans, exhibiting no fear around them.
“That’s the troubling part,” he said. “People kind of drop their guard and they don’t realize the speed and strength that these bears have. and they can turn on a dime and just become agitated and attack.”
Grizzlies are rare on Vancouver Island, but they sometimes swim across narrower stretches of the Inside Passage by way of the adjacent Discovery Islands.
The grizzly has been making the rounds. After the encounter at Little Bear Bay last Saturday, it made its way to the private Rock Bay Campground a few kilometres away. The campground was busy with kids riding around on bicycles during the long weekend, Hilgemann said.
“It walked right through the middle of the campground, there were people cooking supper,” he said. “It didn’t pay any attention to that.”
The campsite posted a photo of the bear on its Facebook page on Thursday, describing it as a “long weekend visitor” that was “last seen heading south.”
After the bear’s visit to Rock Bay, Hilgemann said he believes the grizzly swam to the nearby Chatham Point Lighthouse station.
The lighthouse keeper reported that his dogs went outside on Sunday morning and then returned to the living quarters spooked, Hilgemann said.
“They came back barking and they didn’t want to go back outside, so we suspect the bear was nearby.”
The bear was seen a few hours later at Elk Bay recreation site, a few kilometres away, where it was flipping rocks and eating crabs as campers watched.
The aquaculture company Cermaq posted a photo taken by one of the employees at its Little Bear Bay hatchery, and shaky smartphone footage of the bear chewing on long grass was posted on social media by Nanaimo resident Trevor Sokoloski.
Hilgemann said the bear has a distinctive scar on its forehead. Conservation officers believe it’s not the same grizzly that was photographed last year by a hatchery employee at Little Bear Bay.
He said it’s unclear whether grizzlies are starting to colonize the Island, which is known as black bear and cougar territory. But there is a pattern of young male grizzlies appearing from the mainland.
Though reluctant to speculate about why grizzlies might be coming to the Island, he said it might be connected to the decline of salmon stocks or from increased grizzly populations resulting from a ban on the grizzly hunt.
Adult male grizzles consider younger ones a sexual threat, and sometimes kill them, perhaps causing the junior grizzlies to search for happier hunting grounds on the Island. This one is believed to have swum across from Phillips Arm. The owners of Blind Channel Resort saw it crossing the channel, Hilgemann said.
If you do encounter a grizzly, he said, try to remain calm and back up slowly. Speak to the bear in a calm voice and avoid eye contact, which can be taken as a sign of aggression, he said.
He also noted that grizzlies are known as fast runners, strong swimmers and capable tree-climbers.
To avoid surprising bears in the wild, make noise while hiking, Hilgemann said, adding that it’s a good idea to carry bear spray – after learning how to use it correctly – along with a fixed-blade knife. And be prepared to fight back if attacked, since playing dead doesn’t always work, he said.
Anyone who sees a grizzly should also contact the BC Conservation Office using the Report all Poachers and Polluters line: 1-877-952-7277.