OTTAWA — High population density is a feature of most Group of Seven capitals — but Ottawa stands out among its international peers these days with an unusual demographic situation: a sudden influx of bears.
Black bear sightings surged of late in Canada’s national capital region. Conservation officials say they’ve already had to round up more than 30 of the large mammals roaming urban areas since the start of the month.
From a human’s perspective, the bears have been getting into mischief. Locals have seen them wandering along leafy residential streets, nosing through backyard compost containers and one was even spotted rambling the alleys of Ottawa’s touristy ByWard Market.
Many of the wayward animals, including the one affectionately nicknamed “ByWard Bear,” were seen or scooped up within a few kilometres of Parliament Hill.
“We’ve been getting a lot of calls,” said veteran conservation specialist Richard Moore, who fired the tranquilizer darts last week that eventually neutralized ByWard Bear as it clung to a downtown tree.
“It’s not abnormal to have black bears around urban lands, we get them every once in a while… especially in the fall when it’s time to put some fat on.”
This year, however, has been unusually busy.
Since the start of September, over 50 bear sightings — more than three per day — have been reported in and around the region. Most of them were spotted just across the Ottawa River in the Quebec city of Gatineau, said Moore, who’s the manager of conservation services for the National Capital Commission.
Canada’s capital region is surrounded by forests and the entrance to the vast Gatineau nature park is only about four kilometres from the House of Commons.
At least one Gatineau school board this week formally encouraged parents to explain bear safety precautions to their kids.
The bears have been active. They’ve been blamed for tearing through bee hives close to downtown Gatineau and one was captured walking near a major parkway, popular with cyclists and joggers, just outside downtown Ottawa. On Wednesday, a motorist struck a bear on a busy Gatineau boulevard and police had to euthanize the injured animal.
“They’re not usually dangerous, they’re curious,” said Moore, who noted they are excellent swimmers that can cross the Ottawa River in five minutes.
Adam Oliver Brown, an associate professor of biology at the University of Ottawa, said the combination of the city’s rather uncommon proximity to large stretches of green space, the region’s suburban sprawl and July’s unusually dry weather likely explains this year’s spike in bear sightings.
Black bears, he noted, are probably searching for food in the bird feeders and garbage bins of messy urban areas because the summertime drought left them with fewer berries and nuts in the forests.
“If nothing else, it certainly supports the stereotype that Canada is a nature wonderland,” Brown said.
“It is a bit of a novelty for most of us to see these large specimens — a bear or a moose — wander into our urban areas. But we know that they’re out there living next door to us.”
So far, ByWard Bear’s adventure has created the biggest stir.
Moore, who’s been on the job 33 years, said he’s heard of bears showing up in all sorts of strange places, but never among the restaurants and bars in the Market.
When he arrived on the scene, the 75-kilogram juvenile male was about nine metres off the ground, up a tree, and surrounded by police.
Moore shot the animal with tranquilizer darts as conservation officers held out a huge net near the ground. They braced for the impact of a falling bear — but the groggy mammal stayed on its perch.
One of Moore’s colleagues climbed a ladder set up by the fire department. The officer tied a rope around the bear’s front paws and they carefully extracted the animal from the tree.
“We had two shots before we put him to sleep and even then he didn’t fall completely asleep — so we had to be pretty fast to put him inside the cage,” said Moore, whose team later released it back into the wild.
While it’s been a busy stretch, Moore said the activity is still far quieter than the fall of 1995 when authorities removed 160 bears from the region, mostly on the Quebec side.
“It was just incredible — there were black bears all over the place,” he said.
Over the years, Moore can’t recall hearing about any bear attacks in the region. Black bears, he added, don’t really pose a threat to humans as long as people leave them alone.
But he stressed there are rules to follow when you encounter a bear.
“People take selfies with black bears and we don’t like that,” he said. “People, when they take selfies, they turn their backs to the bear, which is not a good idea. That’s why try to get them out of there as soon as possible.”
Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press