Black bears prowling Canadian oil town in wake of massive wildfire

Fri May 20, 2016 10:12pm EDT
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By Eric M. Johnson

CALGARY (Reuters) - `Evacuees returning to the charred Canadian oil sands city of Fort McMurray next month may have to contend with black bears who have been prowling the streets in search of food.

Black bears have wandered into the town in greater numbers since a wildfire forced some 90,000 residents from the area earlier this month, leaving behind trash cans, dumpsters, and even thawing freezers rife with food, authorities said.

"They are smart and adaptive. They can smell food from kilometers (miles) away," said Brendan Cox, a spokesman for the province's fish and wildlife enforcement branch. "Just as you and I go to the nearby grocery store, or our favorite restaurant, the bears continue to return to a particular food source."

The blaze, which has since swelled to more 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres), destroyed neighborhoods, cut basic services, and heaped anxiety on a community already reeling from a two-year slump in global crude prices.

Some residents are due to return beginning June 1.

Adding to residents' concerns, the city is nestled among prime bear habitat in northern Alberta's lush boreal forests, said University of Alberta conservation biologist Lee Foote.

There are perhaps 40,000 bears in the province, many of which will be searching for food after a nearly six-month winter hibernation at just the time residents are returning home, Foote said. Black bears can weigh 150 kg (330 lb).

A similar situation emerged after Canada's 2011 Slave Lake blaze, when a local fire crew noted in an online journal entry that the torched forest and tantalizing garbage "had lured the bears into the community."   Continued...

A Canadian flag flies over damage caused by a wildfire, which prompted the mass evacuation of over 88,000 people, in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada on May 14, 2016. Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Handout via REUTERS