Cleaning up after bears
… and us
Open letter to those alleging impropriety at the conservation officer service following recent bear incidents:
I was a Yukon conservation officer once.
Yes, I admit I wore a uniform, because I was a public servant, and I wore it with pride.
I kept it clean, because you owned it.
I drove a government truck at work. It was intended to attract your attention. I looked after that, too.
Let me tell you what it was like being the janitor for your problems.
I worked hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime.
I recall being called out at all hours to respond to your calls.
I recall being called at home at 1 a.m. to be reminded that, if this animal near your house “eats your child, your lawyer has advised you to sue me personally.”
I recall being called out in the middle of the darkest night of the year to destroy an animal you wounded.
Anyone can destroy an animal in broad daylight in a remote setting at the time of your choosing.
But it is much different in the complete dark, with no time to prepare, and only a single shot angle with a guaranteed backstop for your bullet.
Let me tell you one story by way of example. Dalton Post was the fitting location to one event that changed the way I will look at wildlife “management” for the rest of my life.
The summer had been as bad as any for “problem” bear/human encounters.
By now I had implemented a program with the DFO staff where they would enter in a logbook, detailed descriptions and specific activities of every bear encounter, sighting, or event.
I was called when one particularly adept young grizzly was pushing the bounds of acceptable bear behaviour.
I went down and reviewed the logbook and discussed it with the DFO employees.
This was my second or maybe third trip for this unruly teenager.
I crossed on the old log bridge into the flats to assess the situation this day.
The salmon run was on.
There were many campers, trailers and tents pitched on the flats.
As I parked and stepped out, I recognized one camped fisherman as Andy Toppila, an RCMP acquaintance of mine from Whitehorse.
I asked him what he thought and he told me an alarming tale of this young blonde grizzly with two black feet who was not afraid to enter the campground any time of day and had actually left a coiled deposit on a pup tent containing some kids early this morning.
As I listened, he pointed and said, “There he is now.”
On the other side of the clearing, not 45 metres away, a beautiful blonde grizzly with two black feet walked out into the open.
As he came, people appeared from out of campers and trailers and vehicles and started taking pictures.
The bear sniffed a tent, walked past another and put his front feet up on the tailgate of a pickup with a short camper on it. An ice chest sat by the door on the tailgate.
The woman who had just retreated inside at the bear’s approach, could be heard shouting, “Shoo! Shoo!”
The bear neatly flipped the lid off the cooler, extracted a fish, and moved back to the edge of the clearing to enjoy it.
I asked Toppila to help me, if I needed it.
“Of course,” he said.
Within a few minutes, the bear stood up and returned to the pickup, but by now the lady had moved the cooler inside.
The bear hesitated, then moved on.
Dalton Flats are in the “Y” between the creek and the north side of the Tatshenshini.
There is a high ridge along the creek, dense with willow, that separates the flat and the campground from the creek.
It is behind this ridge along the creek that most people fish. It was to the point of this ridge that the bear casually walked along the trail, and then disappeared.
A distinctly panicked voice called out from somewhere, “My sons are over there.”
Like a large black cloud that had moved over to block the summer sun, the atmosphere was instantly different.
The cameras disappeared. Firearms began to appear from campers and behind truck seats.
I looked at Toppila and asked, “Please keep everyone back!”
I retrieved my own rifle and walked to the point of the ridge where I could see along the creek bank.
Toppila stood about 45 metres behind.
The river blocked any other noise. There, as happy as could be, were two young fishermen casting spoons upstream and reeling them back in, completely unaware of the young grizzly sitting about six metres from them.
He was hardly interested, focusing more on sniffing the bank along the water edge.
He turned and looked at me and I backed away, knowing somehow he was coming back and not wanting to do anything to change his mind. I had made my mind up at this point what the outcome would be.
I stepped up onto the ridge about three steps, but well off the beaten trail. I waited a few seconds and the bear didn’t disappoint.
He walked between the river and me.
In a disturbing pattern typical of what I had learned wildlife often do in this situation, he acknowledged my presence with a glance, but turned his head to look away as he walked.
When he was three metres away, and the river was completely backstopping the shot, I shot him through the heart and lungs.
He was catapulted into the river and his head surfaced with a snort. My second shot split the difference between his eyes.
The river there is fast and noisy.
The body was rolling end over end and I ran along the bank, both to make sure it was dead, and also to recover it. I was gone for about 10 minutes.
When I walked back into the clearing, I had had some time to think about this, and had made a plan to talk to everyone there, one at a time, and explain the death they had witnessed and their role in it, (subtly and professionally of course), but I was tired of executing bears who responded predictably to poor food and waste handling and whose encroachment into the edge of our world was encouraged, to the point the animal was no longer in possession of its wild character.
The human hypocrisy still confounds me — one second a serene part of the environment, the next a vicious predator, and then at the point of non-existence, back to religious-like serenity.
I tried at every tent and camper, and was greeted with insults at most.
After sifting red faced through my words one young father in front of a family of three cut me off and stated emotionally, “I brought my children 1,000 miles to see some asshole do that?”
Even those who listened didn’t really hear.
The best I got from a couple of people was: “We understand … you’re just doing your job.”
They didn’t understand, just like you don’t. It almost seems you may have been there.
Did I kill bears that you wounded? Yes.
Literally and figuratively.
You suggest I read Steven Herraro?
Not only have I read my copy of his book, he gave it to me.
I know him personally and we have talked of this dilemma.
The wilderness, with all of its components that you care so deeply about, is a noble cause and worth defending. And I applaud you for doing so.
But, alas, I learned a long time ago it exists only in your mind.
If there is a final reckoning, I will have to account for each and every animal I was forced to destroy.
But I know I will have the chance to defend each and every one with facts. And I will not be called on to defend myself against emotional allegations based on nearly no facts.
Another thing I should tell you all is that, given the chance, I would do that job again.
J. George Balmer