‘Successful season’ for bears, says COS

Strong food supply and community partnerships good for wildlife, though early notification remains key

With snow on the ground and bears beginning to hibernate, it’s safe to say that 2017 was a better year for bears than in the recent past, according to the Conservation Officer Service (COS).

“We had a successful season,” said Brittany Mueller, officer with the COS. “There were still a couple of bears who had to be put down based on behaviours and conflict level, but all-in-all it was a good season for bears and people in Whistler.”

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That success is due to a combination of factors, including the bears’ natural food supply, she added. “It was a good food year for bears — natural food — so they stayed up high for a lot of the season,” Mueller said. “There were definitely bears being sighted in the valley but they seemed to have had a lot of food sources available to them.”

Another benefit was a productive partnership between COS and Whistler bylaw, enabling enforcement of attractants found in the day lots and upper lots, while the work put into public education and awareness efforts with groups such as the Whistler Bear Advisory Committee, the Whistler Wildlife Protection Group, the Get Bear Smart Society and Wildlife BC also proved beneficial. “There were a lot of people involved in continuing education and a lot of projects were undertaken with those groups,” Mueller said.

However, there is still more to be done in improving our relationship with neighbouring wildlife.

Three bears were killed this summer as a result of human conflict, the first being a black bear put down in June after entering an occupied business on Blackcomb Mountain. Soon after, another black bear was killed in Nordic, after accessing three vehicles in a 10-minute time period. The incident followed weeks of increasingly habituated behaviour that saw the bear approach windows, access balconies and walk towards humans, unfazed by their efforts to scare him away.

Last month, a tagged bear was also put down after repeatedly entering cars and causing a considerable amount of property damage in the Emerald and Alpine neighbourhoods. “This bear was actually relocated in the past. We tried to do a lot of work on that bear to hopefully not see that fate, but unfortunately this destructive behaviour just continued and escalated,” Mueller explained.

However, the number of bears that were lost this summer is down from the seven black bears that were destroyed by COS last year, and from the eight that were put down the year before. According to the province, local COS received 209 calls about black bears between April 1 and Nov. 6 of this year, to which 43 were attended. Seven bears were hazed, or relocated a short distance. (In 2016, 254 calls about black bears were received, while 50 were attended, resulting in 13 bears being hazed.)

Although many residents remain hesitant to contact COS in fear the  bear will be put down, that course of action is not, as it turns out, in the animal’s best interest.

“When we don’t get the calls early, if we’re not getting the sighting reports, it doesn’t make it good for the wildlife,” Mueller said.

When notified of bear sightings early on, COS can assess whether there’s an opportunity to use education or enforcement on area residents, or possibly haze a bear out of the area using their wide variety of non-harmful, but deterring tools. Together, this all functions to prevent human/bear conflict.

“A lot of times, when we were getting the call, it was too late and there were no options left. We were getting a call that ‘a bear just broke into my house,’... a bear doesn’t just go to that type of behaviour; it’s a slow progression. There were a lot of opportunities there to use the tools we have, and we have so many,” Mueller said. “I’m hopeful that with continuing education and understanding from the public, (people will realize) that we do have a challenging job to do — we have to protect the public’s safety, which ultimately comes first, and then we have to protect the bears.”

Mueller is also reminding locals — including new residents — that despite the cold temperatures, it’s not OK to start leaving food in your car or beer cans on your back porch. “Just because there’s snow, doesn’t mean the bears are all in hibernation yet. We will still have a few late guys going into the den,” she said, explaining that the last bear can sometimes take until late December to enter hibernation.  “Attractants still need to be secured.”

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