“Bears Teach Us” – Sharing With All Our Relations

Bears and humans have been coexisting for tens of thousands of years in Wuikinuxv territory. What can this relationship teach us about stewardship and biodiversity?

by Odette Auger

Estuaries are rich in tuber plants, fish, crabapples. | Photo: ©Andy Wright

Jenn Walkus is a Wuikinuxv scientist, well respected by her neighboring nations for her key work in ending the grizzly trophy hunt in 2017. She says, “My auntie Evelyn was the matriarch in my family, and she always said the bears teach us what to eat. They taught us a lot of things about coexisting in our territory.”

Research on food security for both humans and grizzly bears is guided by the Wuikinuxv Nation’s principle of ńàńakila – to watch over someone and look ahead for them; to be a guardian or a protector.

“We don’t let the fact that the bears live here impede our life. They were here before we were, so we just found a way to coexist with them.” Walkus applies ńàńakila in this case by being “very interested in making sure that bears are as well taken care of as we are.”

It seems bears share Walkus’ views on coexistence. Mother bears will bring their cubs closer to the village, knowing the males, who are aggressive towards them, will not draw too near. When the cubs become young adults, they move away from the village and search to carve out their own territories.

Food scarcity impacts

Bears traditionally thrived in this area, which once saw 3,115,000 sockeye annually. However, since colonization this has declined to 200,000 fish. This lack impacts bears’ behavior, putting both humans and bears in danger.

The salmon collapse of 1999 disrupted the normal ebb and flow of the bear visits. With less food, bears came closer, including the males. The mothers brought their cubs sooner – younger, and in search of food. This habituated cubs away from their natural patterns, leading to some teenage bears becoming more comfortable in human spaces, including with garbage, cans and dumps. The balance of bears and humans was impacted, and some bears had to be culled, a period people speak of with sadness, says Walkus.

The village is serious about removing garbage attractants. The dump fence is now electrified. This month, the Nation signed an agreement with Mt. Waddington regional district to come pick up their garbage – eliminating the need for landfill.

Bears teach humans what to eat. | Photo: ©Steve Woods

Food security for all our relations

Humans and bears eat the same food, so a natural correlation happens – when bears are close and plentiful, so is food. Food security projects on this part of the coast, from gardening to soil building to salmon conservation and lhenx (crabapple) orchard rejuvenation, are working to restore natural systems.

Grizzly bears have been moving out to the outer coastal islands, making more permanent homes. “So many bears are moving on to islands, just because they don’t have enough food. When we do our processing now with salmon, my smokehouse is about a tenth of the size of the smokehouse that my parents had. And so if we’re not getting enough fish, then they’re not getting enough fish,” Walkus explains.

The commercial sockeye fishery has been closed since the collapse in 1999. DFO sets sockeye harvest limits for Wuikinuxv Nation’s food, social, and ceremonial (FSC) fishery. Based on the findings of Walkus’ study, the Nation went a step further and set their limits lower by ten per cent, reserving enough food for the bears.

These vibrant research projects are the outcome of centering traditional ecological knowledge. Scientists are beginning to take cues from the Nations who have known and worked with these ecosystems for millennia – and forging new collaborations with Indigenous Guardians programs.

Walkus says although scientific authors get recognition, it’s important to remember “so much of what we do is based on conversations that we have with our Elders, with our Guardians who go out into the territories every day.”

Another coexistence advocate is Megan Adams, a researcher sponsored by Raincoast Conservation Foundation. She studies bear-salmon-human systems with stewards from the Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv, and Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nations. Her approach is based in the community context as she’s found collaborations lead to fresh approaches.

When there are more humans digging those special roots, there are more roots for the bears, too, meaning there are more bears digging which creates more roots for humans. The circle continues.

“Bears don’t just eat salmon in this salmon-subsidized system, they need grasses and sedges and berries. And so in the estuary, they eat lots of plants that want to be disturbed. They want to be dug up, that helps them propagate more,” explains Adams. “Silverweed, which people also eat, the more you dig up the plants, the healthier the plants are,” explains Adams.

By supporting abundant bears, salmon play a role in ecosystems by influencing seed dispersal and bringing nutrients to the small mammals that compose the base of the food web. These grain-eating animals also function as secondary seed dispersers when they hoard seeds for winter, leading to new food forests of blueberries, salmon berries, and devil’s club.

Jess Housty is a food security advocate in neighboring Heiltsuk Nation. She says, “I feel like people have been disconnected from a lot of their food systems in a lot of ways for a long time. We have dozens and dozens of ancestral food plants … that are just not commonly harvested anymore, and people get really reliant on the community grocery store.”

Carved Corner posts from the Wuikinuxv bighouse look out over the central fire pit. | Photo: ©Grant Callegari, Hakai Magazine

Her solutions involve gardening and plant teaching at Koeye camp. The camp’s mandate is “to open the eyes of our children to their responsibility as stewards of our land, culture, and resources.” Housty takes kids up the river, teaching and harvesting, “introducing them to those plant communities like silverweed, spring bank clover, all those delicious root plants,” she says.

“There are plants that seem to thrive more when we’re in active relationship with them … the more you harvest it and help to spread the seeds and move it around, the more it starts to thrive,” says Housty. Northern rice root is not super common in the territory, but she’s noticed as kids are learning to dig rice root, the patch spreads more every year.

This is the type of insight energizing the plant teachings happening at Koeye. When there are more humans digging those special roots, there are more roots for the bears, too. When there are more roots for the bears, there are more bears digging which creates more roots for humans. The circle continues.

Sara Wickham, a PhD student from the University of Waterloo, is researching the genetic diversity in crab apple orchards, tracking how those propagations were traded at potlatches. She approached this research as “food security for bears first, and if we can wake this practice up while we’re at it, let’s do it.” So Wickham and the Guardians decided to try giving them more fruit.

Indigenous ecological knowledge has long been dismissed by policy makers as “anecdotal.” A powerful tool is created when these insights are offered along with hard science that is informed by, and carried out in collaboration with Indigenous perspectives.

The Wuikinuxv Stewardship Committee is a group of volunteers meeting to provide input on resource management in Wuikinuxv territories. The group eventually plans to extend this care to salmonberries, huckleberries, salal berries and other berries in order to further increase food sources.

The team is working from an understanding that respectful care for food and medicine plants will have reciprocal benefits for humans and all animals in Wuikinuxv territories. Wickham sees this as quite different from the western paradigm that associates human intervention with ecological degradation. “It’s a complicated, beautiful, long-term, and holistic vision that really speaks to the depth of Indigenous ecological knowledge,” says Wickham.

lhenx (crabapple) | Photo: Sarah Wickham

lhenx (crabapple) | Photo: ©Sarah Wickham

Although the priority is to provide food for bears, the Stewardship Committee also recognizes the importance of the land-based connections that can be strengthened through the restoration and harvesting of lhenx, especially for the youth of the nation.

“We know that if we take care of our orchards, they’ll produce more fruit. We’ve forgotten how to do that, but that knowledge still exists in other parts of the coast.”

Wuikinuxv has a steady supply of chinook carcasses in the hatchery. After eggs are harvested, people get the fillets to smoke, leaving carcasses from 50-pound chinook. These become fertilizer for the heritage crab apple trees.

Keystone interactions impact entire ecosystems

In recent years, research has begun to highlight what ecosystems have lost with the decline of the keystone bear-salmon interaction, and could be regained if restoration efforts are successful. Apex predators like wolves play keystone roles in ecosystems through top-down control, but the effects of apex omnivores like bears could be more varied and more impactful.

In this case, an ecosystem-based approach to salmon is necessary to maintain holistic ecosystem processes. Housty has noticed fewer songbirds in Heiltsuk territory, and the implications worry her. “Of course we have diminishing salmon returns in most of our small salmon streams and that has long-term impacts on bears that are not using those systems anymore, or are not using them the same way and berry bushes aren’t being fertilized,” she notes.

When salmon return to spawn and die in the streams they were born in, they carry nutrients from the oceans which enhance both freshwater and soil productivity by fertilizing watersheds with nitrogen and phosphorus. Salmon carcasses are spread by bears, wolves, and through flooding. Research has quantified the influence of this on the abundance and composition of songbird communities.

Even when salmon are abundant, bears consume large amounts of fruit to diversify macronutrients and maximize weight gain. The bears’ digestive systems improve germination success and seedling growth rates, benefiting plant communities in the ecosystem.

Indigenous ecological knowledge has long been dismissed by policy makers as “anecdotal.” A powerful tool is created when these insights are offered along with hard science that is informed by, and carried out in collaboration with, Indigenous perspectives.

“Bears and people are alike and have the same needs,” says Walkus. Using the research to back these arguments will fuel the push for more management changes, “to ensure that we aren’t only allocating resources for people.”

Back in the lhenx (crabapple) orchard, the team puts away pruning tools for the day and return to the village.

When their voices fade off, bears take their place, their big paws snapping branches as they browse – continuing the pruning work.

Community restoration event, group from Wuikinuxv Elementary School. | Photo: ©Sara Wickham

Odette Auger, Sagamok Anishnawbek, is a guest on Klahoose, Homalco, Tla’amin territories. Her journalism can be found at Watershed Sentinel, IndigiNews, the Discourse, APTN, and the Toronto Star, among other places.

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