Wildlife advocates say that unless urgent action is taken to protect their winter dens from the impacts of industrial logging, black bears may disappear from Vancouver Island within a generation.
A black bear pulls organic material into its den tree to create a soft floor (video still by Artemis Wildlife Consultants)
DALLAS SMITH is President of Nanwakolas Council, a coalition of five First Nations on Northern Vancouver Island. Smith can’t understand why black bear dens are protected in the Great Bear Rainforest and on Haida Gwaii, but not on Vancouver Island. “It’s a huge question for the Nanwakolas Chiefs,” says Smith. “Just over the water—literally only a couple of kilometres away—black bear dens enjoy world class protection. Why not here?”
Biologist Helen Davis, who has spent much of her career researching black bears, is equally bewildered. Despite the fact that privately-owned forest land and forestry tenures on Crown lands cover well over two-thirds of Vancouver Island, and the significant risks logging activity poses to bear habitat, the provincial government is doing nothing to protect dens on the Island. “There is no good explanation for it, says Davis. “None.”
What’s the problem?
A winter den may be used by multiple generations of black bears before the tree or stump disintegrates, but at that point, the bears must find other large trees or stumps to create new dens. The inventory of old-growth forest is rapidly shrinking, however, and second-growth trees are now typically harvested before they get large enough to accommodate new dens.
Logging technology has become more sophisticated as well. Many tree stumps used to be big enough for dens, but now even the largest trees can be cut to ground level. Helicopter logging and aerial survey technology have also replaced “boots on the ground” in many areas, says Davis, diminishing the ability to spot den trees before they are logged.
No dens mean no bear cubs. It also means that homeless black bears are straying into the Island’s urban areas, where they are at high risk of being shot. Last January, it was revealed that BC conservation officers had killed 4,341 “nuisance” bears province-wide in just the previous 8 years. Add the impacts of climate change on forest health and declining salmon runs into the equation, and while black bears may not currently be considered a species at risk, it seems likely that will soon change.
Jake Smith fears that it will change much faster than we think. Smith is a Mamalilikulla First Nation hereditary chief and manager of the Nation’s environmental Guardian program. He and his fellow Guardians from other First Nations are constantly out on the ground in their territories, monitoring wildlife. Smith says they have been encountering fewer and fewer bears in the last decade. “At this rate,” says Smith sombrely, “we may see the last black bear on Vancouver Island within a generation.”
Chief Jake Smith (right) with a tranquillized grizzly bear
Taking it to the Forest Practices Board
Davis has worked extensively with forestry companies on voluntary den protection guidelines, restored damaged dens, and created artificial ones where there aren’t enough large trees for bears to make new dens naturally. But she says these measures, while helpful, fall well short of what is required to ensure the continued survival of black bears on Vancouver Island. Nothing short of full legal protection of both dens and large trees is required, and urgently.
In April 2019, Davis complained about the issue to the Forest Practices Board, which monitors and reports on compliance with the Forest & Range Practices Act (FRPA) on Crown lands. The Board responded in January 2020, acknowledging the lack of any governmental effort to afford black bear dens protection on Vancouver Island. While options exist in the FRPA to designate forested areas as having “regionally important wildlife status,” these have never been used for bears.
Biologist Helen Davis beside a black bear den that was created from a stump and a piece of plywood.
The Board also noted that the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) couldn’t say whether current forestry management is effective or not to adequately protect bear dens, or even accurately estimate the current bear population on the Island. The Board has no enforcement powers, however, and refrained from calling for formal den protection. Instead it simply urged the provincial government to “work with First Nations and stakeholders” on den “management.”
It was unequivocal in its final conclusion, however: “If second-growth forests are harvested before they develop old-growth features, and old-growth harvest continues, the supply of suitable denning habitat on Vancouver Island will decline.”
The provincial government’s stance
A few days before BC Premier John Horgan called a snap election on September 21, the provincial government released an independent report on BC’s old-growth forest management. The report, A New Future For Old Forests, noted that the retention of “forests of old trees” is key for maintaining biological diversity, and concluded bluntly: “The overall system of forest management has not supported the effective achievement of legislated objectives for old-growth forests.”
The report recommended prioritizing conservation of BC’s forest biodiversity and, at least until a new strategy is implemented, deferring development in old forests where ecosystems are at “very high and near-term risk” of irreversible biodiversity loss. In its wake, FLNRORD Minister Doug Donaldson agreed to defer any logging on up to 353,000 hectares until August 2022, but the areas being deferred contain little old-growth forest.
Shortly before the election on October 24, the provincial NDP party began proclaiming it would protect all old-growth forest, but didn’t provide any details. Pleading election restrictions on provincial government media communications, no one would be interviewed or disclose any more information (as of late November).
Green Party MLA Adam Olsen, an advocate for bear den protection, is sceptical that much will change: “My experience of working with the BC NDP on forestry is they have to be dragged kicking and screaming to do anything. Their approach is basically 1950s redux. It’s all about the economic opportunities in logging, and decisions about wildlife are made by the forestry ministry. Everything has been set up to fail these animals.”
The forestry sector’s stance
Government agency BC Timber Sales (BCTS) manages 20 percent of the provincial allowable annual cut. BCTS encourages protecting dens on Crown lands, but also emphasizes that BCTS must “be mindful of the licensee’s harvesting rights and their autonomy to direct their own operations.” In other words, logging rights trump den protection.
The two biggest forestry companies operating on Vancouver Island (in terms of geographic spread) are Mosaic Forest Management Ltd, which handles approximately 6,000 square kilometres of private forest lands and forestry tenures on behalf of Island Timberlands and TimberWest, and Western Forest Products Ltd (WFP).
Mosaic declined the opportunity to be interviewed, instead emailing a statement from its director of sustainability, biologist Molly Hudson, saying that Mosaic’s forestry decisions are guided by its “Bear Den Policy.” The policy, which Mosaic refused to disclose, requires protection of dens “wherever possible.” When asked for examples of when it has not been possible, Mosaic did not respond.
WFP was also not available for an interview. Communications director Babita Khunkhun emailed to say that WFP “actively conserves habitat, including black bear dens, as part of our ongoing commitment to our role as stewards of forestlands.” In addition, wrote Khunkhun, WFP has “rigorous measures in place to identify and retain bear dens on the lands under our care, full-time biologists on staff, and uses independent consultants to design operating plans with the aim of conserving wildlife. Our measures include training field staff and contractors to identify and conserve bear dens and minimize disturbances to hibernating bears. We leave a reserve around dens and between October 21 and April 30, we adapt our road building and harvesting operations in proximity of dens.”
Of course, WFP isn’t simply being a good environmental citizen; it’s required to meet provincial objectives for wildlife and biodiversity under BC’s Forest Planning Practices Regulation, including the objective to retain wildlife trees. Those objectives are however subject to the qualification that meeting them will not “unduly reduce the supply of timber from British Columbia’s forests.” WFP’s Vancouver Island forest stewardship plans, a requirement of the FRPA, specify only the minimum areas required to be set aside as wildlife tree retention areas in its cut blocks. The plans contain no specific reference to black bears.
The Teal-Jones Group, which operates on southern Vancouver Island, is currently the subject of a blockade of intended old-growth logging at Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. Teal-Jones also declined to be interviewed or provide any information about its guidelines—if it has any—for den protection.
What happens on private forest lands?
The FRPA does not apply to private forest land, even if classified as “managed” forest land under the managed forest program, where owners voluntarily commit to managing their properties to meet legislated environmental objectives.
According to the Managed Forest Council (MFC), Southern Vancouver Island is home to the largest area of private forest land in the province. The MFC regulates the roughly 18 percent of private forest land that is in the managed forest program (about 800,000 hectares), but was unable to say how much of that is on Vancouver Island. The MFC’s Field Practices Guidelines contain an objective for critical wildlife habitat protection on “agreed terms” with the government, but do not mention bears.
On its website, the Private Forest Landowners Association states that its members: “Recognize, and through agreement with the provincial government, protect critical wildlife habitat where it cannot be protected on Crown lands alone.” The PFLA was contacted for more information, but did not respond.
An unacceptable state of affairs
Helen Davis says: “Some of the forestry companies are doing better in the last three years, but it’s hard for me to celebrate when we’ve known about the problem for more than 25 years and it’s taken them this long to act.”
Davis also points out that even when a den is protected by a logging outfit, it isn’t necessarily done the right way. She has seen lone trees standing on ridge lines, prone to being blown over in a strong wind, and at the sides of busy roads with nothing screening them from traffic. “Bears will probably abandon those dens, because they no longer afford adequate protection.”
A black bear den tree in the middle of a cut block
Jake Smith is scathing about the lack of meaningful engagement by both forestry companies and government. “I bring deep knowledge into my role as a Guardian,” Smith says. “I have been on these lands all my life. First Nations understand we need to protect bear habitat now, but everything we say to provincial officials falls on deaf ears.”
As to promises to protect old-growth trees, Smith isn’t holding his breath. “Everything is dollar-driven. If the government and forestry companies were really interested in protecting bear habitat or big trees, they would already be working with First Nations to do it.”
Indeed, 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 Smith, President of Nanwakolas Council, agrees with that: “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. It’s frustrating,” he continues. “There’s no leadership by government to take this on, and to bring the forestry industry along with them. Forestry companies tell us they want to partner with us, but they don’t want to do things differently. They want everyone to guarantee their economic future but won’t accept they have to do their part to protect the bears’ future.”
First Nations are no longer going to accept the status quo, adds Smith. “Those days are over.” Guardians like Jake Smith are out on the land, identifying den trees, both existing and potential, and ensuring the logging companies know about them. Dallas Smith 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.”
Dallas Smith, President of Nanwakolas Council
What good looks like
Jeff Mosher manages Taan Forestry, owned by Xaaydaa GwaayGalang (the Haida Nation). Mosher says black bears play a critical role in Haida Gwaii’s ecosystem: “They’re a top predator in the food chain, for example. Sitka black-tailed deer have been a huge problem here, but the bears are helping keep the population down.” Bears are ecologically important in other ways: “They leave salmon carcasses and salmon-rich bear scat in the forest, containing important nutrients for the trees’ growth.”
Black bears are culturally significant to the Haida (Taan is a Xaayda word meaning “black bear”) and the company therefore goes “well beyond” minimum protection requirements, says Mosher. “We’re lucky on Haida Gwaii because, thanks to the efforts of the Haida Nation, we have plenty of old-growth trees left that we can set aside. We’re planning for where new dens could go, planting cedar and allowing other trees to reach a sufficient size to be suitable for new dens.” Taan also proactively rehabilitates old dens, and field staff undertake physical ground searches for large trees and bear dens when flagging their cut blocks. Any den found is given a 60-metre reserve (the minimum requirement is 20 metres) in which no logging-related activity is allowed to take place. In prime denning season—November 15 to May 15—the restricted area is increased to 200 metres.
These measures aren’t necessarily typical, says Mosher. “Other forestry companies have left Haida Gwaii because it wasn’t worth it to stay. But Taan’s shareholder is the Haida Nation. Protecting bears is a priority, even if it means a lower dividend.”
Taan is a good model, says Davis, who is in the process of drafting “ideal guidelines” that forestry companies should be required to follow, including requirements to physically survey cut blocks for bear dens. FLNRORD should be mandating not only protection of the inventory of existing bear dens, she says, 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 underway by FLNRORD for nearly two years. Public feedback summarized on FLNRORD’s website strongly calls for more robust environmental regulation. Given the extent of private forest lands on Vancouver Island, exempting them from regulation would hugely devalue any measures applied on Crown lands only.
Why it matters
Black bear wildlife viewing brings substantial tourism revenue into provincial coffers, says Davis, as do hunting licences. Their role in maintaining biodiversity is critical. Not least of all, as Jake Smith points out, the cultural and spiritual interconnection between black bears, the forest ecosystem and First Nations is not only special, it’s fundamental: “That’s why it’s my job to help protect these animals. It’s so important.”
If British Columbians and tourists want to continue to enjoy the visceral thrill of seeing the wild black bears of Vancouver Island, and if we want the bears to continue playing their part in the Island’s ecosystem, then something needs to be done, and fast. Otherwise Jake Smith’s grave prediction that we may see the last black bear on Vancouver Island within a generation is all too likely to come true. “We can’t let that happen,” says Smith. “We won’t.”
Katherine Palmer Gordon is an award-winning non-fiction author and a contributor to numerous anthologies and magazines. She is currently working on her eighth book, showcasing Indigenous leadership in environmental stewardship and community wellbeing in the Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii.