It’s the end of an era for WildsafeBC, as longtime provincial coordinator Frank Ritcey has retired as of Dec. 14. Ritcey has been a frequent interview subject of The Journal over the last three years, and when we spoke with him for the last time he had good things to say about the community.
“I love the feel of Ashcroft. It’s a small town full of kids riding bikes down the street.” Ritcey said that he and his wife considered moving to Ashcroft from Kamloops, but ultimately decided on Merrittt, as they wanted to be closer to Kamloops.
Ritcey joined WildsafeBC—then called Bear Aware—in 2011, and he is proud to have shepherded the WildsafeBC program into being. “It had been the Bear Aware program since 1999, and was doing very well. But as soon as I got the position, I was getting calls regarding other wildlife conflicts.
“We didn’t just need Bear Aware; we needed Deer Aware, and Snake Awake. I realized we needed one overarching program. And I also found that if you manage properly for one wildlife species, you’ll manage for most.”
Reducing attractants—for bears and other species—has been one of WildsafeBC’s key messages. The key attractant is garbage, but Ritcey said that while they hear time and time again that people are handling that attractant well, others—such as bird feed, food for pets, and fruit trees—slip people’s minds.
He noted that 2018 is the lowest year on record since 2011, when he began tracking the numbers, in terms of the number of bear conflicts. He added that bear conflicts are sightings of bears in areas where they aren’t supposed to be—such as urban areas—and not bears attacking humans. “People report these encounters to the Conservation Office or to our site. It’s about bears in urban settings where they shouldn’t be, not eating people.”
He noted that bear conflict numbers were way down—by about one-third—in 2018 from what they were at their peak in 2016. He attributes this fall in numbers to the fact that people are more aware of what they need to do to manage attractants, and the abundant natural food supply in 2018.
“This year we had a wet spring and there was lots of grass and food available for bears. There was enough groundwater that the soil was fairly wet. There were lots of mosquitoes, which is indicative of enough water that there were very good berry crops. Bears had enough natural food, and didn’t need to come to town.”
Ritcey notes that two years of extensive wildfires have also meant that fresh vegetation has come back, which bears love. “Fire isn’t great for humans, but it’s good for bears.”
He says that there isn’t as much blow-back on Conservation Officers now when a bear has to be put down. “People realize that we’re the problem. They’re upset about the reason why the bear was killed, which is because people weren’t managing attractants.”
Ritcey has long been an advocate for snakes, and says that any snake populations close to large urban centres are in danger, primarily from vehicles. “But I’ve seen a change in the public attitude toward snakes. Some people are scared by them, but a lot of people realize it’s not cool to kill snakes [killing snakes is illegal in B.C.]. We need to be responsible and leave them alone, because they’re an important part of the ecosystem.
“It’s encouraging when I speak to people and hear the right things.”
Ritcey says that a trend he has noted is an increase in deer problems. “They’re ousting bears as a primary concern. Your entire yard is a buffet for deer. They’ll eat the hedge, the trees, grass, flowers, fruit, and vegetables. It’s hard to manage deer, and their attractants.
“People understand when a bear has to be removed, but they’re upset when a deer is killed. People love them [deer] or hate them. But they can injure or kill dogs, and injure the people trying to protect their dogs. I think we’ll see an increase in deer conflicts.”
Ritcey says that his job with WildsafeBC has been one of the best jobs he’s ever had. “I’ve been able to travel all over B.C. and speak with community members about issues. I’ve learned a lot from people. It’s a truly magnificent province that we live in, and I’m glad I saw so much of it.”
He adds that his replacement, Vanessa Isnardy, will do a bang-up job. “She’s been job-shadowing me since September.”
Ritcey says that he now will have the time, and no excuses, to finish a book he has been working on for some time. “I wrote a column for the North Thompson Star/Journal; short pieces about growing up in Wells Gray Provincial Park. I’m still writing, and enjoy writing. I really enjoy humorous writing.”
Ritcey’s book—Tales From the Dork Side—is due out in 2019.