Backyard chickens increase bear attack risk, says expert
The City of North Vancouver’s decision to allow backyard chickens may be just the latest North Shore municipal policy to run a-fowl of proper bear-safety practice, says a local bear behaviour expert.
Tony Webb of the North Shore Black Bear Society said the Sept. 17 city council decision to allow some city residents to keep hens for personal use could — like similar bee-keeping bylaws in North Vancouver city and district — attract bears to residential neighbourhoods, endangering residents and their pets.
“Absolutely chicken coops are an attractant,” Webb told The Outlook in a phone interview last week. “Even if the intention is to keep their chickens spotless, it’s the chicken that will attract the bear — the smell of the chicken — not necessarily their manure but the chicken itself.”
Webb said he has seen first-hand the damage caused by a bear attack on an illegal chicken coop in West Vancouver where hen-keeping is not allowed, as well as bear attacks on other enclosures housing rabbits and even pigeons on the North Shore.
“It’s really a moral problem because these bears are really very sentient beings,” he said.
The newly amended bylaw is the latest North Van urban agriculture initiative with the potential to affect local bear populations since North Van district council voted last spring to allow residents of multi-unit dwellings to keep up to 100,000 honey bees at home.
“We had one fellow last year who kept calling conservation officers saying, ‘I’ve got a bear and I had my beehive out and he’s broken it all up and I got another one and now he’s come again,’” Webb said. “He didn’t realize that he was the problem.”
The chicken bylaw change applies only to those residents of single-unit dwellings surrounding the city’s downtown core.
Approved 5-2 with councillors Don Bell and Guy Heywood voting against, the bylaw allows those residents to keep up to eight hens while prohibiting the keeping of roosters due to their noise.
Slaughtering the hens at home is still prohibited.
The change will likely bring between 20 and 30 chicken coops to city backyards, according to city staff estimates based on a similar initiative in Vancouver. Staff also said they expect the risk of increased bear incursions into the city to be minimal.
But Coun. Bell disagreed.
“I still have concerns about the potential for predators accessing these pens,” Bell said, adding that it’s not only bears he’s concerned about attracting but coyotes and raccoons as well. “The areas that we’re talking about keeping them are the single-family residential areas, which are the areas that very often are associated with the wildlife corridors — the natural corridors.”
Coun. Heywood urged council to wait to approve backyard hens until city staff could study how Vancouver and other B.C. municipalities fare in their own recent forays into urban fowl farming.
Coun. Rod Clark said he is less concerned about backyard chickens than he is about bee-keeping, which the city first approved in May 2009, but not for the same reasons Webb is concerned.
“I don’t know that we’re going to attract a lot of bears,” Clark told council. “I’d be more worried quite honestly that I’d get stung by a bee with someone bee-keeping next door and now we allow that.”
But Webb insists cultivating urban agriculture — even fruit-bearing trees — can be dangerous to both people and bears if certain precautions aren’t taken.
“If you keep chickens, you should go and get an electric fence; likewise with beehives,” Webb said, adding that black bears will climb as high as three storeys up the side of a building to reach a beehive and eat its honey. “And if people have fruit trees and want to keep them, they should put an electric fence around it. If they don’t want to do that, cut the trees down, it’s as simple as that.”
So far in 2012, 10 black bears have been destroyed by police and conservation officers on the North Shore due to potentially dangerous incursions into residential areas. In four cases, bears have brazenly entered North Shore homes, Webb said.