How sharing habitat with grizzlies looks from north of the border

How sharing habitat with grizzlies looks from north of the border

Conservation Northwest / Mar 06, 2024 / Coast to Cascades, Grizzly Bears

By Joe Scott, International Programs Director

On a hot day last July, I sat on the Van Loon’s back deck overlooking meadows, cropland, forests and upper Lillooet River all backdropped by the steep rise of the BC Coast Ranges. The Van Loons are a fourth-generation farming family – Andrea, Marty and their daughter Erica were taking a break from the dawn-to-dusk chores to chat with me about wildlife, farming and everything in between.  

We could see a grizzly bear with her two cubs of the year in one of their pastures, closer to the riverside vegetation. This particular female has set up shop in the Van Loons fields for the last few years to raise her cubs. 

Female grizzly bear and her two cubs near Pemberton, B.C. Photo: Tonette McEwans

The Van Loons mostly grow carrots and alfalfa, other vegetables, and some livestock. Living with grizzlies – both the positive and negative – in their midst is a favorite subject of most conversations with the Van  Loons and others who farm the valley. Just upriver from their farm and on either side of the valley is some of the wildest and most productive wildlife habitat in B.C., and grizzlies and all the other resident wildlife filter through it at some point in their seasonal movements.  

After a brief lull in the conversation Andrea said, “When it comes down to it, we’d rather have the grizzlies than the cows,” even though they’ve never lost any livestock to grizzlies. The bears – both black and grizzlies – did, however, love carrots and were taking full advantage of the Van Loon’s largesse.  

But everyone has their limits, and carrots are the Van Loon’s primary cash crop.  

So, last year when our Coast to Cascades (C2C) crew offered a 50/50 cost share for electric fencing around the carrot fields, the Vanloons didn’t hesitate. Six thousand volts to the nose is a very effective way to keep animals out of your stuff. They electrified. And the bears learned pretty quickly that the free lunch program was over.  

With the Van Loons as role models, the dominoes in the valley began to topple – C2C helped farmers install eight other simple, relatively inexpensive barriers around the products of their toil in the first year. This year, two of those farmers requested extensions to their e-fences and six others installed new ones. The fences have been very effective for the early adapters with no further crop losses behind the electric barriers. We now have a waitlist of others for the coming year.  

Problems solved? Nope. But a great first step. And the educational value is incalculable. But there are others in this and other valleys the world over who don’t accept the idea that grizzlies and people can or even should coexist, even if they don’t eat their carrots or chickens.  

“We frequently hear people say, ‘We live here, and the bears should be out there – in the wilderness,’” Andrea said.

Neither the Van Loons nor anyone else want grizzlies peering in their back doors or snooping around their barns – bear no-go zones. But they and others have settled on a comfortable space where bears and people can do their thing without conflict.

The problem is that humans keep shrinking wilderness, with an ever-increasing number of us recreating in a limited amount of land. Moreover, many of the farms, orchards, and subdivisions occupy land that was out there in the wilderness in recent memory in the lower elevations.  

The reality is that wildlife is being squeezed like never before with climate change as an added stressor. At the same time, southern grizzly bear populations are starting to bounce back from decades of persecution and mismanagement and reclaiming their historic habitats. If we’re to conserve, restore and connect wildlife populations and habitats, coexistence must be part of the equation, whether we’re talking predator or prey species.  

If habitat connectivity is one key to conservation in a climate-changing world, human-wildlife coexistence is the currency that will help buy it. And we will continue to use it.  

Joe Scott, Conservation Northwest International Programs Director









Learn more about our work on restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades