More than 20 bears killed this year in Whistler

Deaths due to human-bear conflict reach a 10-year high

Another black bear was killed last week in Whistler after getting into conflict with people - marking the 14th bear to be destroyed by conservation officers so far this year.

That's the highest number of conflict bears to be killed in a single year in Whistler in more than a decade, according to statistics kept by Sylvia Dolson, executive director of the local Get Bear Smart Society. The last time more bears were killed was 1999 when the year's total reached 19.

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On top of the 14 animals killed in 2011 because of human-bear conflict, an additional nine bears have died as a result of vehicle collisions. With another bear recently found dead in the forest, that brings the total known number of fatalities to 24 this year. Dolson noted that other bears likely wandered off and died after being hit by vehicles on the highway.

"It's really disturbing," Dolson said of the 2011 totals. "We have way exceeded our sustainable rate of mortality."

The most recent bear to be deemed too great a public safety risk to live was trapped and killed last Thursday (Dec. 15) after entering a warehouse in Function Junction earlier last week when workers were inside, said conservation officer Peter Busink. Three employees were able to herd the bear out of the building, but the bear had a previous conflict history and had been captured before.

No details were available on the sex or age of the animal. It's also unclear what the bear was after inside the warehouse, but Busink said there must have been garbage, food or another attractant of some sort in the building.

Dolson acknowledged that with this year's failed berry crop bears have been more persistent in seeking out human food sources, leading to increased conflict. But the high mortality numbers likely mean the overall bear population in Whistler is shrinking - despite what might seem like an increase in bear sightings, she added.

There have been no recent studies done to indicate where total population levels might be, but with high mortality numbers in recent years and only so many cubs that are born and survive each spring Dolson estimates numbers are down."My guess would be that the total numbers are significantly down," she said.

And with this year's poor berry crop there won't be many cubs born in the spring, Dolson added. Many Whistler bears are going into hibernation underweight and won't have the fat stores to produce cubs.

Dolson noted that conflict death levels are directly related to the state of natural food sources. For example, 2009 was a great food year and no bears were killed because of conflict.

"All the flaws in the system show up when it's a bad food year," Dolson said.

However, the society has seen success with its waste and landscaping audits, with no conflict reports in recent memory associated with residential garbage sheds that have been bear-proofed.

Moving forward, Dolson said the society would like to see the return of a dedicated, Whistler-based bear response officer who can get to know habits of individual bears and businesses that have repeated attractant issues.

The current set-up with numerous different conservation officers based out of Squamish or elsewhere in B.C. has led to "inadequate" communications between officers, Dolson said.

She also said there should be a "no tolerance" approach to businesses that have garbage and attractant issues. Warnings are not enough.

The Get Bear Smart Society is working to develop a Bear Smart Business program for Whistler that will see local business operators commit to initiatives such as staff training and keeping garbage areas clean and secure. The society will also develop a staff training video to help educate young seasonal workers on bear-smart practices.

Both Dolson and Busink noted that there are still bears out of hibernation in Whistler, so the public is reminded to keep all attractants secure. If bears are able to access non-natural food sources they won't go into hibernation, Busink said.

"People aren't being diligent enough with their attractants," he said.

Total number of black bears killed in Whistler due to human-bear conflict

2011 (to date) - 14

2010 - 10

2009 - 0

2008 - 11

2007 - 13

2006 - 9

2005 - 2

2004 - 8

- - -

1999 - 19

(Statistics provided by Sylvia Dolson, Get Bear Smart Society)

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