No bear should burn to death in a slash pile.
That’s the message longtime Greeny Lake trapper Paul Blackwell is trying to spread this fall as bears prepare to go into hibernation. He said that as slash piles grow ever larger they’re becoming attractive places for bears to build their dens ahead of winter hibernation.
“(They are) so appealing to a bear it’s almost like a hotel. You’ve got this great pile of wood that insulates the bear from the snow, so it’s no wonder they like it so much,” Blackwell said. “I feel, quite strongly, that even one bear burned alive is one bear too many. It is not a humane or reasonable way to kill a bear.”
Blackwell has been working his trapline in the South Cariboo for well over 40 years. In that time he’s become an advocate for humane and environmentally sustainable trapping. Whenever he notices a problem in the environment, he speaks up.
Over the last few years, Blackwell has received several reports of bears on fire running out of slash piles, or their bones being found in the ashes of a pile. Not wanting to go off of a conspiracy theory, Blackwell began to investigate to see if there was any truth to these rumours.
This year Blackwell was able to confirm the rumours by talking to a member of the Greeny Lake Volunteer Fire Department. The firefighter said the department went to burn a slash pile on private property for practice and found a bear inside it who came out because of all the noise they were making.
“Then I started looking for bear dens in the slash piles and very quickly I found three bear dens, just in the last couple of months,” Blackwell said.
The Ministry of Forests said they initiated a black bear den monitoring project on Vancouver Island in 2020 to improve their understanding of how black bear dens are being managed during forest activities. The project’s ultimate goal is to inform future bear den management policies.
The Ministry added that in other regions of the province, “additional steps” have been taken to ensure the safety of these dens, though no specific details were included. Neither the Ministry nor the B.C. Conservation Service said they have received reports of black bears being lit on fire in slash piles.
Blackwell said that West Fraser is currently logging using a small clear-cut technique. Because there is no longer an OSB mill in the area more and more slash is ending up in piles rather than being turned into plywood or fuel pellets.
Beyond bears using the piles as dens, Blackwell said all kinds of forest animals, including endangered Fishers, have been found to use the piles as habitat. Sometimes Blackwell said that slash piles can even cause wildland fires, putting the rest of the forest at risk. The Ministry of Forests requires those conducting category three burns to supervise the fires with a ready supply of water.
However, Blackwell alleges that some contractors hired to burn slash piles are cutting corners, neglecting to stay on-site during the burn. He said they’ll use a drip torch to quickly ignite the edges of a pile causing it to burn inwards and trap any animals within.
“I went up to Murphy Lake (last month) because a rancher up there said you need to see what’s going on. There wasn’t a soul to be seen (near the slash piles) and you could see spot fires at the edge of the timber and you could see where all of these fires had got away,” Blackwell said, providing photographic evidence.
Rather than burning large slash piles, Blackwell said forestry companies should be required to burn their slash in smaller piles or arrange them in windrows across the cut blocks. He said the Ministry of Forests is aware of these facts but doesn’t seem interested in pushing for legislation that would reduce the size of slash piles or eliminate them altogether.
The Ministry said the province is taking action to reduce the amount of slash piles being burned in B.C. They’re encouraging forestry operators to improve the use of residual wood, such as by sending their slash to plants where they can be turned into fuel or usable fiber.
Blackwell said he doesn’t expect to change government policy this winter. Instead, he wants to raise awareness about the issue and encourage people like Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Lorne Doerkson to start putting pressure on those who can make this decision. He also hopes those who do burn slash piles will read this article and be aware that animals could be inside the piles.
“What I’m asking the public is: let’s start a conversation about how we can deal with slash in a way that doesn’t burn bears,” Blackwell said.
The Ministry of Forests encourages the community to report violations of burning regulations to 1-800-663-5555.