Climate change and urban expansion playing major roles, experts say

Keith Bonnell’s morning on Sept. 6 started off like any other.

He rolled out of bed, flicked on the radio and began gathering his belongings to head to the gym just down the road from his place in the ByWard Market on Murray Street.

When a report on the radio revealed a 70-kilogram black bear, between 18 and 24-months old, had made itself at home in a tree a stone’s throw away from his apartment, he almost didn’t catch on.

“There was this momentary pause because I was in my pre-caffeine mode,” he said. “Wait, that’s where I live, that’s not okay.”

Bonnell, deputy editor with the Ottawa Citizen and Ottawa Sun, quickly took to his balcony overlooking the street to see what was going on. His street was completely shut down by police, empty, save for an official escorting a civilian down the road.

A few hours later, a team of firefighters, police, and conservation officers tranquilized the bear, lowered it to safety and transported it out of the city, where it was later released into a forest in the Lanark area. No one was hurt, and the bear walked away relatively unscathed, but not before making international headlines for its downtown adventure.

“I love the (ByWard Market) … the vibrancy, the neighbourhood, the character of the businesses and the restaurants and the people who live and work there,” but “it is an area that is not without some interesting characters,” Bonnell said. “I’ve woken up to crime scenes, I’ve had somebody break into my apartment once, but this was a bear, this was different.”

A September of sightings

While the ByWard bear’s trip to the market is perhaps the most quintessentially Canadian news story in recent history, it wasn’t the only four-legged visitor to the streets of downtown Ottawa in the past few months.

In mid-July a full-sized moose with an injured leg made its way onto Highway 417 during the morning rush hour, stopping traffic in both directions. Its encounter with urban life didn’t end as nicely as the ByWard bear’s did—the moose was euthanized—but not before spawning a Twitter account and devoted social media following of its own.

Seeing two wild animals capturing national and international attention for their journey into Ottawa begs the question, are the number of sightings of wild animals in the capital region higher than average this year?

The answer is yes, at least when it comes to black bears, the bear species native to the region.

Since the the start of September alone there have been between 45 to 50 sightings of bears in the region, according to Richard Moore, acting manager of conservation services with the National Capital Commission (NCC). To put things into perspective, Moore said over the course of a year the NCC usually receives around 60 to 80 reported sightings of black bears in total. This means in the past two weeks, the NCC has received more than half of its average number of sightings per year.  

However, less than 10 of these sightings (including the ByWard bear) have been in the Ontario side of the capital region. Instead, most sightings are being recorded in Gatineau, especially in the area surrounding Gatineau Park, Moore said. Sept. 10 was an especially active day for sightings in Gatineau, with a bear and its cub spotted near École du Plateau and another seen near Pierre-Janet Hospital.

But the September spike in black bear sightings in Ottawa and Gatineau isn’t anything to be alarmed by, Moore said, since occasional hikes in sightings do occur year-to-year.

“Black bears do come around the city, it’s not abnormal.”

“With Ottawa’s substantial amount of green space there are natural corridors that lead wildlife, on rare occasions, into the urban core,” added Donna DuBreuil, president of the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre.

Statistics show that being seriously injured or killed by a black bear is extremely rare—their impulse is to flee humans. According to the NCC, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a black bear.

A study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 2011 tracked the number of fatal attacks by black bears on people in North America from 1900 to 2009. In this span of over 100 years, just 44 Canadians were killed by black bears.

If you do spot a black bear, Moore had a few key pieces of advice.

“Make lots of noise and walk backwards away from the bear,” he said. “If you see them around your property, hide food and bird feeders.”

From rural to urban

The question remains, what motivates black bears and other wild animals to leave the safety of the forests and wetlands behind and head for the world of suburbia, highrises, and bustling highways instead?

Julia Morand-Ferron is a biology professor at the U of O who researches and teaches on the topic of animal behaviour. Typically, she studies the psychology of crickets and chickadees, but theorized what might be causing the recent spike in black bear sightings and what might bring wild animals to urban areas in general: simply put, the answer is food.

“You have these two tendencies in animals: fear of humans and attraction to food,” she explained. “When the attraction is stronger, animals will be ready to take very high risks.”

Once an animal is rewarded with a treasure chest of a food-filled dumpster or an especially plentiful garbage can, their behaviour is reinforced, she added.

“It becomes a viable foraging strategy.”

DuBreuil agreed, adding that the ByWard bear likely travelled to the market via the Ottawa River.

It doesn’t help that the region experienced a notoriously hot and dry summer. Ottawa set a heat record on Canada Day, for example, where temperatures hit 47 C with humidex. Because of this, food is especially hard to come by for these animals.  

“There wasn’t a severe drought this summer, but it has meant that crops like acorns and a lot of the nut bearing trees are later to mature,” DuBreuil said. Acorns and nuts are a key part of a black bear’s diet, according to the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

Moore noted it’s difficult to pinpoint a single factor that could be causing the spike in bear sightings in particular, but agreed that the hot and dry summer likely plays a role, along with the forest fires burning in northern Ontario, pushing bears from their rural habitat.

More broadly, climate change could be playing a role, Morand-Ferron added.

“The ranges (of animal’s habitats) are shifting,” she said. “Some animal species are now located in cities where they were not before and other places they’re disappearing. You can have a lot of rapid changes with the change in temperature and vegetation.”

Urban expansion might also be a factor bringing wild animals into cities, Morand-Ferron and DuBreuil said.

“Loss of habitat and changes in landscape can disorient animals,” Morand-Ferron said.

Half of all monitored wildlife species in Canada are in decline, according a report released by the World Wildlife Fund in 2017. The report suggests one of the major causes of this decline is habitat loss due to human activity.

Reconfiguring the human relationship to wildlife

City life can take a major toll on the health of wild animals, outside of being tranquilized or euthanized.

For instance, a study from June of this year published in the journal Conservation Physiology found that life in the city is giving raccoons high blood sugar.

Researchers analyzed the blood sugar levels of anaesthetized live raccoons, who were later released unharmed, from three locations: those living on the grounds of the Toronto Zoo with high access to garbage, those living in conservation areas with moderate access, and those living in farming areas with little access.

Raccoons with high access to garbage had more than double the levels of glycated serum protein than their counterparts, a marker used to identify blood glucose levels.

However, there are actions everyone can take to reduce human-wildlife conflict in cities.

“If you live in the suburbs you may have the temptation to feed … animals, but … it’s better to refrain from feeding wild animals so we don’t train them to enter these kinds of reciprocal relationships with humans,” Morrand-Feron said.

“A growing number of people across the province want to see a progressive and humane response when a large wild mammal accidentally finds itself in a developed area,” DuBreuil said. “We want to reduce people’s fears and coexist with wildlife.”