Bears prowling pot fields could face death

VANCOUVER - The plight of a docile, playful group of black bears discovered prowling fields of pot when police raided a southern Interior British Columbia grow-op has grown to global growl.

VANCOUVER - The plight of a docile, playful group of black bears discovered prowling fields of pot when police raided a southern Interior British Columbia grow-op has grown to global growl.

Learning they could face death, more than 800 people across Canada and as far as China and Australia signed an online petition over the weekend to "Save Bears Found in Drug Bust."

Its creator, a Calgary woman who simply calls herself an animal lover, isn't beating around the bush about why she's taken up the cause.

"I felt in my heart and mind that the B.C. government was looking at the cheapest way out," Doreen McCrindle, 42, said in an interview. "And that was basically trying to execute the bears."

Upwards of 15 bears of all ages were found in late July happily roaming a sprawling, 28-hectare wooded property in the community of Christina Lake, their tummies full of human-provided dog food.

Mounties tiptoed around the animals while executing a search warrant and arrested two adults in their 40s, who calmly shooed one bear from the basement during the seizure.

Now the fate of the creatures is in the hands of the provincial Environment Ministry, which says if the animals can't learn to find food in the wild now the treats are gone, they'll have to be exterminated.

"It's going to be left up to the bears, hopefully, to move on and go back to their more natural lifestyle," said conservation officer Dave Webster.

"There's good potential some of those bears won't be able to do it, just because they've been dependant on this site for so long for food. Once we identify those animals then we're going to have to decide what to do from there."

Webster said it's not as easy as moving the bears elsewhere because they've never learned to survive on their own.

"Most likely that's a death sentence for those bears as well," he said.

Other bears defending their territory would likely push them out or kill them, sending them fleeing back to human sources of food.

"And that's going to create another problem," Webster said, adding ministry policy is against moving animals into captivity.

But hundreds of people are ringing bear bells to ward off the death knell.

"Why should the bears pay with their lives??? They weren't growing or selling drugs," wrote petition signatory Michelle Bafik-vehslage, from Texas.

Glenn Ingram from Alberta, signed: "Don't condemn the couple, put them to work growing medicinal marijuana and operating a black bear sanctuary."

McCrindle insists there are better options.

"Right now they're not a nuisance, they're not travelling off the site and I think they have a really good chance of making it with our help," she said.

Else Poulsen, who's worked for the Calgary zoo and recently published the book "Smiling Bears," suggests the province could install temporary feeding stations to help ween the bears back to their natural food sites.

"The bears are extremely motivated to put weight on right now, so it should be quite easy to move them to other feeding sites, away from the grow-op," she said, explaining the animals are in hyper-feeding mode because hibernation season is approaching.

Moving the bears to a sanctuary isn't a realistic plan, Poulsen agreed, adding the B.C. government does have some "progressive" projects in the works testing out rehabilitation for grizzly bears.

Webster said ministry biologists and veterinarians are currently pondering the "highest opportunity for the bears to succeed.

"But at the end of the day, these bears are going to have to look after themselves."

Every year the ministry destroys hundreds to thousands of bears because they've become acclimatized to humans and then stir up trouble, Webster said.

All parties agreed that had the people not fed the bears in the first place, the sticky situation would have been avoided.

According to RCMP, it's not clear if the people accused of feeding the bears — and now facing drug charges — were using them to guard their illegal cash crop or simply liked them as pets.

They're also being investigated for violations under the provincial Wildlife Act, including feeding and leaving attractants out for dangerous wildlife.

The property in question has been cited for issues related to feeding wildlife in the past, Webster said. He's even heard the locals refer to a woman at the house as "the bear lady."