Brown bears causing serious problems in Hokkaido

Courtesy of Sapporo Television Broadcasting
A brown bear is spotted in a residential area of Higashi Ward, Sapporo, on June 18, 2021.

SAPPORO — Brown bears have been causing serious problems in Hokkaido this fiscal year, killing four people and injuring eight others as of the end of November, with 2,163 sightings. These figures have all hit record highs.

The increasing number of interactions with brown bears is believed to be the result of a lack of food and their increasing population, as the Hokkaido prefectural government suspended a campaign to cull them decades ago.

The prefectural government is now considering extending its annual brown bear hunting season, which is from October to January, to April 15 at the latest.

Brown bears are the largest land mammal in Japan and can only be found in Hokkaido nationwide. A male brown bear can weigh over 400 kilograms, much heavier than the Asiatic black bears mostly found in Honshu. The diet of brown bears mainly consists of fruits and plants, but they also eat deer, salmon and trout.

One early morning in June, four people between the ages of 40 and 89 were attacked by a brown bear in a residential area in Higashi Ward, Sapporo, including one person who was taking out the garbage. The bear, about 1.6 meters in length and weighing 158 kilograms, then broke into the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Camp Okadama nearby.

The incident led to Sapporo Okadama Airport temporarily shutting down as it shares a runway with the camp, resulting in eight flights being canceled.

This was the first time a brown bear was spotted in the mostly flat Higashi Ward since 2004 when such records started being kept. The city government believes that the animal came down from the mountains following rivers and waterways in search of a female during breeding season.

In recent years, there have usually been either zero or just one death reported each year, however, four people have already been killed this fiscal year. In one incident, a woman in her 70s was attacked in July while working on her farm in the southern town of Fukushima, which faces the Tsugaru Strait. The farm is part of the habitat for brown bears, but until that incident, they had never attacked humans in that area before.

“Brown bears and humans seem to have coexisted to some extent,” said Hifumi Tsuruga, a senior researcher at the Hokkaido Research Organization who conducted an on-site investigation. “In this particular incident, the brown bear might have unintentionally come across the woman and instinctively attacked her.”

From fiscal 1965, the prefectural government had a campaign to cull brown bears during spring, but the initiative was discontinued in fiscal 1990 because the population began to decline. It is now estimated that their numbers have doubled to 11,700 in fiscal 2020 compared to fiscal 1990.

However, brown bears faced a serious food shortage last year with fewer chum salmon and pink salmon migrating upstream, as well as fewer acorns. It is believed that the animals have been spotted more often because they are nearing people’s homes in search of food.

“Because the brown bear population has increased, we have entered a new period in which humans are coming into contact with them more often,” said Yoshikazu Sato, professor at Rakuno Gakuen University in Hokkaido and an expert on brown bear ecology. “Whenever we go into a forest, we need to assume that bears are nearby.”

A prefectural government official said, “We want to have bears fear humans and reduce the amount of damage they cause.”