By: Gabrielle McLaren


All of British Columbia is considered bear country. There are between 120 and 150,000 black bears across the province, according to Wildsafe BC — which means that if you’re in BC, you’re sharing living space with the real life Winnie the Pooh, although bears aren’t so cute when they’re strolling through residential areas. The City of Burnaby is home to deer, birds, fish, coyotes, beavers, and bears, and SFU is no stranger to wildlife, either. Though the raccoons make for cute pictures, the bears have the potential to cause damage.    

The North Shore Bear Society states that “black bears are a highly misunderstood species,” which is why many people have a disproportionate fear of them. Here are some facts from WildSafe BC to help you get a better understanding of bears:

Bears are solitary creatures who inhabit a ‘home range,’ where they may tolerate the presence of other bears if food is abundant. About 80% of that diet will be vegetation, though bears also snack on salmon, carrion (dead animals), insects, rodents, and sometimes bigger game like young moose or elk. From November to April, bears go through a ‘denning period,’ meaning that in the spring when they wake up, they need to replenish about 30% of their weight. Luckily for them, bears can smell food from over a kilometre away. Their sense of hearing and sight are also incredibly well-adapted, contrary to popular myth.

The trouble is what biologists call anthropogenic food — food that comes from human sources. Between 2009–13, Wildsafe BC noted that in cases where a black bear attractant was observed, garbage was the attractant in 19,501. Pets, composts, freezers, barbecues, and birdfeeders were other common human culprits.  

Since BC is bear country, it’s quite normal for bears to pass through communities. But when a community is integrated into a bear’s foraging area, the animal has become food-conditioned, which will lead to it being human-habituated.  Which is to say that it will lose its natural fear of humans, especially if it has been exposed to and fed by humans as a cub. Once that fear is gone, bears start letting humans get too close for its comfort, which maximizes chances of conflict.

To make matters more complicated, there is virtually no way for a human-habituated bear to unlearn those behaviours. And unfortunately, relocating animals isn’t as durable of a solution as it seems. Aside from being stressful to the animal, relocating animals into each others’ home ranges or into a new ecosystems can lead to to competition and social conflict. Additionally, research has shown that adult bears almost always return to their former homes, “. . . generally . . . within a month, and regardless of the distance [that] they are moved.”

The Get Bear Smart Society, a group which aims to minimize the amount of bears killed as a result of human-bear interactions through policy and community management, maintains that preventing bear-human interactions altogether is what communities should be focusing on.

On their website, SFU Safety and Risk Services provide a few tips for wildlife safety on campus:

  1. Dispose of garbage properly.
  2. Do not feed any wildlife, including bears. It’s against the law to feed dangerous wildlife.
  3. Make noise, use a bell, or go with friends when on campus trails. This can help to alert wildlife of your presence so they can avoid you.
  4. Avoid, avoid, avoid. If you see wildlife in the distance, do not approach and give it as much space as possible.

According to Grady Ott, operations supervisor for SFU Facilities Services, there are two kinds of bins used on the SFU Burnaby campus: 11 compactors which are considered bear-safe, and eight front-dump bins, which are not located in high-use areas. On the residences, there are four compactors and five front-dump bins.

“SFU has moved to a compactor called a Vertipack for the residences and [Discovery 1] where most of the bear [sightings] happen and these units are completely sealed when the door is properly closed. For the front dump bin and [Discovery 2], SFU mandates that it be locked when not in use. The totes [which collect paper, recycling, and compost on all loading docks] do not have any lock on them,” he says.  

Depending on whether bins and totes are located in high-use areas (such as the residences) or secondary sites, waste is collected once or twice a week.  

“I do not think SFU can be 100% secure as there are human factors that can throw garbage beside the compactor or put food waste in the wrong stream. SFU tries to act quickly when this happens and has a great team of labourers, [a] custodial contractor, BEST Service Pros, and [a] landscape contractor, Popular Landscaping, who all play a critical role in keeping the campus clean and a deterrent for pests.”

Dan Mikolay, the WildSafeBC community coordinator for Maple Ridge, agrees.  “Right now, bears are consuming 20,000 calories a day. They will not expend energy looking for food if they are not rewarded. Securing garbage and compost [and] removing food from cars are a [couple] examples of unnatural food sources that could bring wildlife into urban areas.” According to him, this is the biggest mistake that leads to bear-human encounters.  

He also advises to be aware of your surroundings; “I have seen people walk by ‘caution: bear in area’ signs with headphones on and looking at their phones. If they had encountered a bear, they would not have heard the warning signs most bears give out.”

These little gestures all contribute to a wider picture. “We all are stakeholders in keeping wildlife wild and our communities safe. Individuals can control attractants like bird feeders, outdoor pet food, barbecue grease, and fruit. Landowners can reduce conflict by reducing invasive blackberries [and] create bear-resistant barriers for livestock and crops. Cities design plans to create wildlife corridors and provide education for their residents . . .”

Keeping this in mind, it is doubly important to keep the environment and your surroundings in mind while on the Burnaby campus. In the event that you actually do run into a bear on Burnaby Mountain, the North Shore Black Bear Society recommends that you keep in mind “the four S’s”:

  1. Stay calm
  2. Stand still [—] [d]o [n]ot [r]un!
  3. Speak calmly
  4. Slowly back away

Always make sure to give the bear plenty of space and a clear exit from the situation, to give it the chance to engage its flight, not fight, instincts.  

If you see bears or other wildlife on SFU campuses, you can call Campus Security at 778-782-4500.