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Salmon shortage starving Canadian grizzlies
(CNN) -- Canada's Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia is about to welcome spring and the emergence of bears from hibernation. For many bears, the grizzlies in particular, it could be a season of tragedy.
The Great Bear is the largest expanse of intact coastal temperate rainforest left in the world, but many bears will wake up starving. A critical decline in salmon stocks sent the bears into hibernation last October undernourished.
In the past few years, the animals' search for food has triggered confrontations with humans. "They wouldn't run away when dogs were attacking them," said Jim Foulton, of the David Suzuki Foundation, a Vancouver, British Columbia, environmental organization.
"They literally were hanging around the houses and around the school, right in the downtown part of the community."
A dozen bears shot
At least a dozen bears have been shot in these confrontations, either by conservation officers or by frightened townspeople. Some of the animals were black bears, but most were grizzlies, attracted by garbage around homes and in the local landfill.
Matt Austin, from the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment, said, "The landfill can serve as a school of bad habits to teach bears to associate people with food."
For two decades, the salmon shortage has been a growing problem, both for bears and the region's Oweekeno Indian Nation, which depend on the fish for food.
Environmentalists say the shortage results from overfishing and logging practices that allow mud to run into streams.
"I think it's clear that it's more than a coincidence that large-scale industrial over-cutting in that area has played a role in the decline of the salmon resource," Foulton said.
Undernourished before hibernating
Conservation officers are also worried that most bears went into hibernation last year undernourished ... and may cause even bigger problems when they emerge this spring.
"They had very little fat on them," said Austin, "and this was in October, at a time of year when we would expect them to be almost at their maximum weight."
Wildlife officials say something must be done to control the animals, but some say killing the bears is unnecessary.
"This large a number of grizzlies simply should not have been shot on the spot, the way they were," said Foulton. "There were alternatives."
Some see relocation as a viable alternative to killing the bears, but the provincial Environment Ministry disagrees.
"We are really just shuffling the problem around, as opposed to dealing with the root cause," Austin said.
Relocation produces stress
Wildlife experts say most relocated bears try to return to their original territories. Other relocated bears become stressed, usually do not mate and routinely become a nuisance in the area to which they are taken.
Experts also say that relocation simply postpones the inevitable ... leading to a slower, more painful death.
"It's really a tragic situation from our perspective," said Austin, "something we are very concerned about.
"There are things we can do about how we manage our garbage, how we manage our compost, things of that nature."
The Oweekeno Nation is considering a proposal to clean up the landfill, but that will do little to solve the salmon shortage. A solution to that will require a government effort that will be years long.
And with the bears about to emerge from hibernation in desperate need for food, time may be something these animals do not have.
Grizzly bear 'troublemakers' get second chance at sanctuary
Great Bear Rainforest
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