Push on for stronger fruit tree laws

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BOW VALLEY – The municipalities of Banff and Canmore may take a tougher approach in dealing with fruit trees that attract hungry and opportunistic bears into urban areas.

There have been calls for a ban and removal of crabapple trees, which are known to attract bears to residential neighbourhoods in fall once natural food sources like buffalo berries diminish, putting both residents and bears in harm’s way.

Banff is talking about the possibility of a new, all-encompassing wildlife attractant bylaw to deal with crabapples and Jack-o-lanterns, while there are calls in Canmore to give its wildlife attractant bylaw more teeth.

Jay Honeyman, human-wildlife conflict specialist for Alberta Environment and Parks, said a black bear shipped out of the Canmore’s Peaks of Grassi neighbourhood on Aug. 25 is a typical story of a bear becoming more brazen in its search for food.

“This bear was a classic example of a bear probably feeding on buffalo berries, then discovering a whole bunch of ornamental fruit trees, then finding a bag of garbage not in a bin,” he said, noting the bear eventually made its way into a home garage.

“That’s quite a bit different than a bear feeding on berries on the edge of a yard. There’s less wiggle room for managing that kind of bear and it’s situations like this that have led to the end of many bears.”

Ornamental crabapple and chokecherry trees laden with ripe fruit have become even more attractive to bears in recent years as Bow Valley communities get better at eliminating access to garbage and food waste.

As bears look to fatten up in preparation for a long winter’s hibernation, fruit trees can also act as a gateway for bears to get into other unnatural sources in town – bird feeders, greasy barbecues, recycling or garbage, and other sources.

Bears that learn there is food in town will come back again and again, often in broad daylight. They can become bold and aggressive. Even without contact, bears have been relocated far way, or killed, to protect people.

Grizzly Bear 148, a famous bear that was shipped out of Canmore in 2017 to a remote area in northwestern Alberta and was subsequently shot and killed by a hunter in neighbouring B.C., knew exactly where the fruit trees were in Banff.

Following her death, a human-wildlife coexistence committee was formed. It came up with 28 recommendations focused on reducing the probability and severity of wildlife encounters here, including removal of wildlife attractants such as fruit trees.

Historically, the Town of Banff has taken a fairly permissive approach to the issue of fruit trees, although a voluntary fruit tree removal incentive program saw 28 trees removed in 2015 and 2016 from 21 different properties.

Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen said

council will look at the 28 recommendations to see which ones apply to the municipality, but said she’s open to looking at a more comprehensive bylaw dealing with wildlife attractants.

“I would be open to discussing a bylaw around it in order to protect wildlife in Banff National Park,” said Sorensen, who sat on the Bow Valley human-wildlife coexistence committee.

“We know when wildlife enters the townsite, people and the animals can be at risk and that is something we have a responsibility to deal with.”

Canmore, meanwhile, has had a wildlife attractant bylaw since spring 2017, allowing fines to be issued against people who attract dangerous wildlife to their yards with garbage, bird seed, pet food, buffalo berries, greasy barbecues – even crabapples.

While it’s illegal to leave crabapples and other fruit available for wildlife to eat, a charge can only be laid after a bear is already in a fruit tree.

Greater focus has been put on education and personal responsibility to encourage residents to remove fruit or cut the fruit tree. No tickets have been written since inception of the bylaw, although eight warnings have been handed out.

Jim Pissot, a local environmentalist, has been pushing for a stronger bylaw in Canmore because he believes the current bylaw that is only enforceable after a bear has “already tasted forbidden fruit” is far too weak.

“How many more bears will be attracted to abundant ripe fruit in Canmore neighbourhoods before council and administration move up from ineffective pleadings and platitudes to an enforceable bylaw we can be proud of?” he said.

“Many neighbours diligently removed ripe fruit or have even removed trees entirely. But their efforts will be for naught if a single tree attracts a single bear into our neighbourhoods.”

Canmore Mayor John Borrowman said the focus has been on education in the early days of the bylaw to try to get support and buy-in from the community to pick their fruit or remove a tree.

He said part of the problem this year has been limited resources for enforcement, noting the bylaw department has focused on dealing with dogs off leash and illegal short-term rentals.

“Sooner or later, I think we are going to have to start enforcing the bylaw and finding resources to do that,” said Borrowman, who co-chaired the human-wildlife coexistence committee and was responsible for getting the committee formed.

“I’m totally open to the conversation of putting stronger terms in the bylaw and enforcing it, but everything takes time and resources from a municipal perspective, but the community also needs to pitch in.”

Bill Hunt, Parks Canada’s resource conservation manager for Banff National Park, said part of the discussion during the committee’s work was related to an updated Town of Banff bylaw to address a variety of wildlife issues.

He said the report provided clear direction that communities need to change how they think about wildlife in urban areas. That means keeping wild animals out of town while providing secure areas adjacent to town so wildlife can move around safely.

“I think the approach of trying to develop a bylaw that is comprehensive that focuses on a range of wildfire issues would be beneficial,” said Hunt, who was a member of the committee’s technical working group.

The Town of Banff and Parks Canada embarked on a cost-shared initiative to provide residential property owners the opportunity to have their crabapple trees replaced with an approved alternative at no cost.

Canmore had a similar program. Since the programs were established, the two communities have removed more than 80 problem fruit trees, greatly reducing bear-human conflicts in those particular neighbourhoods.

Chad Townsend, the Town of Banff’s environmental manager, said letters were sent to property owners known to have crabapple trees and other fruit-bearing trees to see if they were interested in the program.

He said many took advantage of the program, but when there was a followup, there were some residents who wanted to keep their trees.

“We also advertised and we didn’t have anybody come forward who we weren’t already working with,” he said.

“In terms of a voluntary program and incentive, that tells me we may have almost reached anyone out there who’s interested.”

It’s been quiet in terms of bear activity in Banff so far this fall, but Honeyman said there’s lots of bear activity in Canmore right now, with bears honing in on fruit trees.

“We’re not getting a lot of buy-in because bears are still feeding in backyards,” he said. “We’ve had a bunch of bears in trees already.”

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Cathy Ellis