Taking Care Of Black Bear Dens
Guardians of the Nanwakolas First Nations are learning how to locate black bear dens on Vancouver Island, to help protect them from the impacts of logging.
Black bear dens aren’t protected on Vancouver Island. That, believes hereditary chief Jake Smith, manager of Mamalilikulla First Nation’s Guardian program, is a serious problem.
Without dens, bears may not survive long rainy West Coast winters. They certainly won’t have cubs, and inevitably, their population will shrink. Jake, who with his fellow Guardians from other First Nations are constantly out on the ground in their territories, says he and his colleagues have already been encountering fewer and fewer black bears over the last ten years.
What’s Causing The Problem?
A winter den, in which bears hibernate between November and May each year, may be used by multiple generations of black bears over many decades-sometimes hundreds of years- before the tree or stump disintegrates. At that point, the bears must find other large trees or stumps to create new dens.
But privately-owned forest land and forestry tenures on Crown lands cover well over two-thirds of Vancouver Island, and the inventory of old-growth forest, especially containing both large red and yellow cedar trees, has been rapidly shrinking due to continued logging. Second-growth trees are now typically harvested before they get large enough to accommodate new dens.
Under current provincial forestry management rules, there is no protection for dens outside the Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii (where black bear dens are specifically protected under the 2016 Great Bear Rainforest Land Use Order). While some Vancouver Island-based forestry companies have voluntary guidelines for minimizing the impact of logging activity on dens, they are not universal and their implementation leaves much to be desired, says bear biologist Helen Davis , who has been fighting to get dens protected for more than two decades. Even if they were currently protected, that would only be on public forest lands, and Vancouver Island holds the largest amount of private forest lands in the province.
A Problem For All Of Us
Black bears running out of winter den options is a problem for everyone, for many reasons. The bears are a vital part of the ecosystem, helping manage the populations of introduced species and leaving nutritionally rich salmon carcasses and scat on the forest floor, feeding plants and trees. They also add huge value to British Columbia’s tourism coffers. There is little more viscerally thrilling than seeing a wild bear roaming freely in its habitat, as Vancouver Island’s wildlife viewing tour operators, many of them First Nations-owned, know.
Culturally, these beautiful animals are priceless. “As First Nations, we represent all of the animals we protect in the territories, through our sacred ceremonies, in our dances and in the potlatch. We are so interconnected with them culturally, it is so important to protect them,” says Jake. “As a hereditary chief and as a Guardian, it’s my job to protect them. We can’t let the loss of the bear dens continue. We won’t.”
What’s The Solution?
Dallas Smith, President of Nanwakolas Council, says he simply can’t understand why black bear dens are not protected on Vancouver Island. “It’s a huge question for the Nanwakolas Chiefs,” he says. “Just over the water-literally only a couple of kilometers away- black bear dens enjoy world class protection. Why not here?”
Earlier in 2020, the provincial government publicly released a review of British Columbia’s old-growth strategy. The report, called “A New Future for Old Forests,” recommends “full engagement” of Indigenous leaders and organizations on the development and implementation of policy and strategy to conserve large trees and biodiversity. Dallas agrees with that suggestion wholeheartedly: “What’s urgently needed is a collaborative approach between First Nations, forestry companies and government that puts large trees and wildlife first, before dollar signs.”
First Nations are no longer going to accept the status quo, he adds. “Those days are over.” Dallas also points out that all tenure applications also have to go past the First Nations for review: “They are taking a long, hard look at each one. If it doesn’t meet their standards for protection, they aren’t going to give it a green light.”
The provincial government should be mandating not only protection of the inventory of existing bear dens, says Helen Davis, but planning to provide sufficient habitat in the form of large trees to meet future needs. The recommendations in A New Future for Old Forests should be implemented in full, as soon as possible. The Wildlife Act could be used to protect dens on all forested lands, public or private.
A review of the effectiveness of the objectives of private managed forest lands, including protection of key public environmental values, has been under way for nearly two years. Public feedback summarized on the provincial government’s website strongly calls for more robust environmental regulation. Given the extent of private forest lands on Vancouver Island, protecting dens on all forested land, not just Crown land, is a critical step to take.
Guardian Training On Bear Den Identification
There is another important strategy under way already: the Nanwakolas First Nations are taking action into their own hands. The first critical step in protecting existing dens is to find out where they are, and to monitor logging and other development activity in the area and to ensure any impact on the dens is reduced as much as possible. That data is also vital for the First Nations when they assess the impact of applications for new development or logging tenures which have been referred to them for their review.
To help the Guardians know what to look for, Nanwakolas Council arranged for Helen Davis to conduct two consecutive (and COVID-19 safe) one -day workshops with the Guardians last August, training them on key things to know about bear den identification.
“We recognized the high level of interest in this from the First Nations,’ says Jordan Benner, regional forestry advisor to Nanwakolas Council. “The Guardians are already out in the territories gathering data on archaeological sites and large cultural cedar trees. We realized there is an opportunity here to look for black bear dens at the same time, and add another important layer to that cultural data.”
How To Spot A Bear Den
Nanwakolas Council training coordinator Heidi Kalmakoff helped organize the day long workshops. “We spent the first two hours in a classroom with Helen,” explains Heidi, “learning about bear biology, and how and why they den.” Helen presented the information from the perspective of what the bears need: “She talked about why it’s important to have large trees or stumps available to make new dens, and finding good safe locations for dens.”
The participants also heard about the impact of logging on dens, including not just the cutting down of large trees and trees with dens in them, but how cutting all around a lone den tree and then leaving it unprotected from windstorms or unscreened from busy roads may force bears to abandon it anyway.
Finally, the participants spent some time looking at photographs of dens so they could get used to how to spot them in the forest. Having fired the Guardians up with enthusiasm to get to work, Helen took them, along with Jordan and Heidi, to a forested area near Sayward where they could practise looking for dens.
“First she walked us through how to collect data on the iPads we were using,” says Heidi, “including measurements and other important information about the dens, anything we found there that might be relevant to understanding why the bear chose that tree for a den, for example.”
Key signs to look for include claw and bite marks on a tree-bears typically use cedars when they can-and tufts of hair that might be caught on a piece of bark. Holes are not always at ground level, and can be deceptively small: “The bears want to be able to protect themselves from predators,” explains Helen, “so the harder it is to get inside, the better.”
Inside a hollow tree or stump, another clue is the presence of dried ferns and other plant materials. “The bears will put a lot of work into making a comfortable nest inside the den,” marvels Heidi. The dens also smell unexpectedly good, of dried fern and cedar rather than the bears. That’s unsurprising to Helen, who explains that bears don’t want predators to catch their scent if possible. “They also don’t defecate or urinate in the den all winter,” she adds.
That provides another clue to deciding whether you’ve found a den, or just a day bed at the base of the tree: “Black bears will often have a nap a the base of a tree, and when they get up will have a poop next to it before ambling off.” If you find a bear bed surrounded by bear scat, in other words, you have definitely not found a den (one of the other things that differentiated a bed from a den is, ironically, the lack of bedding).
Protecting Dens and Bears
The data that the Nanwakolas First Nations Guardians will now be collecting about bear dens will not only help the First Nations in their work to protect the ecosystems and animals in their territories, it will contribute to making the case for formal legal protection of bear den habitat on Vancouver Island. The Nanwakolas First Nations are advocating for more research into the bears to be undertaken, and better forestry management regimes that will prevent the destruction of prime den habitat. Fundamental to that, repeats Dallas Smith, is for the provincial government and forestry companies to engage with First Nations to achieve protection in the best possible way.
That engagement is needed urgently. Out in the forest near Sayward, the participants in Helen’s workshops were shocked to find one den in a tree completely exposed to the elements in a clear cut, and another surrounded by shot rock from road blasting nearby, “As First Nations we have deep, deep knowledge of these animals and these territories,” observes Jake Smith. “We know this is just wrong. We can’t let this continue. It has to stop, now.”
- Because COVID-19 restrictions are preventing physical gatherings to share knowledge about data collection and bear den identification, Nanwakolas Council is developing training videos that will be available to its partners. Watch this space.
- Read more about black bears and the importance of protection of their dens: https://www.focusonvictoria.ca/forests/33/ and watch a black bear making its winter den: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKGcz7cc-fA&t=15s