‘I never thought I would rescue bear cubs’
Lydia Koot, founder of the Hope Mountain Black Bear Committee, shares what she has learned about the Fraser Valley's bears in the last decade and what is needed to keep people and animals peacefully coexisting.
When The Current phoned Lydia Koot in April, the call went straight to voicemail. The 68-year-old Hope resident had been ready for an interview to talk about her time as the founder of the Hope Mountain Black Bear Committee—but in the bear world, sometimes things come up. Like needing to drive a black bear cub from Hope to Smithers to take it to the Northern Lights Wildlife Society.
“I never thought I would rescue bear cubs,” Koot said later. “I was only thinking about how to co-exist with bears, and other wildlife for that matter.”
In 2011, Koot founded the Hope Mountain Black Bear Committee to help locals live alongside the bears that call Hope’s mountains home. Today, Koot is a local expert on black bears, speaking to school children, helping residents keep their yards bear-friendly by gleaning fruit, and occasionally driving cubs across the province in a stainless steel dog crate to help them get a new lease on life.
We caught up with Koot to ask her about how the started rescuing bear cubs, what humans need to do to better co-exist with the animals in the Fraser Valley, and how growth and new arrivals are challenging that relationship.
FVC: How did you get started caring for black bears in the Hope area?
Lydia Koot: “The way it started was that there was a bear shot, right around the corner from me. And that was in 2010… It really upset me. So I talked to my daughter the same day and she says, ‘Mum, don’t be upset about it. Do something about that…’
“The mayor finally helped me get in contact with the Hope Mountain Centre… so I became a board member of the Hope Mountain Center. And we started with just organizing. Volunteers set up a meeting with the district RCMP, the Conservation Officer Service, and pretty much everybody said: ‘Yes, we have to do something here in Hope…’
“I got about 10 volunteers from those initial meetings and established a relationship with the Conservation Officer Service. And that’s pretty much how [the Hope Mountain Black Bear Committee] started. We started slow and small. But over the years, we’ve expanded.”
FVC: Did you know a lot about black bears before you started doing this?
LK: “Not really. I mean, I used to live in Lillooet. So we dealt with black bears a lot because Lillooet has way more bears than we have here in Hope. But I was just involved because I knew that I had to take care of my garden and the fruit trees and stuff like that, but I was never involved with trying to teach about it. So I just started with getting official training from conservation officers. And I started following online courses and went to a lot of conferences and did a lot of reading and talking a lot about their communities here in BC, but also in the States… and other provinces just to see what other places do.”
FVC: What’s been the most surprising or interesting thing that you’ve learned about black bears since you’ve started diving more into it?
LK: “That they’re really, really interesting animals. They are not as dangerous as so many people think. I’m coming from Switzerland, so I’ve lived in Canada for 31 years. And I was scared to death when we came here because there are tales of bears being fierce and just dangerous, dangerous animals.
“Well, black bears are really not dangerous animals at all unless you provoke them or you corner them. And they are very, very willing to coexist with people—because they pretty much have no other choice, because we destroy their habit more and more. So it’s just a really interesting and misunderstood animal. And it’s really rewarding to try to teach people, if you do the right thing to keep the bear off your property. So by not having any attractants available, you keep yourself safe, but you also keep the bear automatically safe. And it’s really not that difficult.”
FVC: Since you’ve started this—I guess it’s been more than 10 years now—have you seen a shift in the public perception towards black bears?
LK: “Yes. At the beginning when we started canvassing door to door, people just thought we were nutcases. A lot of them would just smile at us and think, ‘Oh, you know, give them a year and they are gone.’ A lot of people would just slam the door in our face as well. Now, people thank me all over the place and the rest of my volunteers.
“So the residents here have changed big time. Unfortunately, we have such a huge influx of new people and city people who don’t have regard for nature and wildlife because they grew up in a city, and maybe never had to deal with it. And they just think they have more rights than animals do. So new people, it quite often takes quite a while until you change their attitudes.”
FVC: Last week we weren’t able to chat because you were on the road with a rescued bear cub? Is that something that you do often?
LK: “Yes and no. Of course, you never know ahead of time. When there is a bear cub rescue, it’s usually just I’m being phoned because I’m closer to the cubs here… I have my own equipment and I’m a registered volunteer for the Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter… I never ever go without permission.
“Sometimes residents phone me and say ‘We have an orphaned bear cub on our property. Can you come and trap it?’ But I will make them get into contact with the Conservation Office and the wildlife shelter in Smithers. And once I have official permission, I will go and set my traps and try to catch the cubs.
“This one last week, it was caught by the Conservation Officers. So I just had to pick it up and feed it overnight because it was too late to travel. Then the next day I traveled to Quesnel on my own and the shelter picked it up in Quesnel.”
FVC: So 10 years ago, did you ever imagine that you’d be driving up to Quesnel with a bear cub in a dog crate in your car?
LK: “I never thought I would rescue bear cubs. I was only thinking about how to co-exist with bears, and other wildlife for that matter, because it’s all connected. And then the first call came.
“We had bought two traps just because we had quite often accidents where animals were being run over on the highway. Hope has so many highways going through it. And so we thought we’d buy a trap to be prepared in case we have baby animals that we need to catch if the mother was run over. And we only used it about six or seven years ago once, in Hope, from an orphan black bear. And it actually ended up being so big and in fairly good shape that we actually released that on the spot. And then nothing happened for a couple of years…
“Then three and a half years ago, I got the call from Smithers asking if I could go to Gold Bridge and try to capture a little cub who had lost its mum. And I did. That was the start of my rescue time. So you never know how many you will rescue. How many are in need. So last year was pretty bad. And we think that has to do with climate change and the heat that dried up all the natural berry crops. And then we have the fires where a lot of animals were displaced. And maybe, who knows, mums killed in the fire or in landslides. But there were lots and lots and lots of orphaned cubs last year.”
FVC: For your program, how do you see it growing or changing in the coming years?
LK: “Hope is growing. So that will of course make the program grow too. But on the other hand… the education is something that we’ll have to continue, especially because so many new people move to Hope. Talks to schools will continue.
“What I have seen grow in the last maybe two, three years is that I do training for businesses, like environmental consulting offices. So I do bear presentations to them and do bear spray workshops. Staff training has increased in the last couple of years. So I think that will continue.”
FVC: Was there anything that you wanted to talk about that I haven’t asked?
LK: “We have one more program that of course also has been halted because of the pandemic. We did something that is called Friends of the Skagit. We would stop every Friday afternoon, all the cars, traveling up into the Skagit Valley… because we have a huge issue with people dumping garbage, leaving their garbage behind…
“We stopped the tourists and gave them a Leave No Trace speech and made them aware they are going into the country where, if a bear gets your trash, that ends up being an issue out there. It’s too bad that it’s just our laziness that gets bears killed. And so we handed out trash bags to those people and brochures, and that had actually quite a significant change…
“We thought we would start it up this year again, but we just found out that they probably won’t be able to restart [because] the route into the Skagit was severely damaged by the atmospheric river from last year. So… we have to wait till that’s open again. So, [now] we’re just trying to advocate wherever we can to keep the bears and people safe.”