Conservation officers scrambling to keep up with bear sightings

A series of human-bear conflicts in recent weeks have resulted in more than a half dozen bears being killed in the southern Yukon and left conservation officers scrambling to keep up.

A series of human-bear conflicts in recent weeks have resulted in more than a half dozen bears being killed in the southern Yukon and left conservation officers scrambling to keep up.

Yukon conservation officers are extremely busy dealing with bears, said Traolach Murchu, a spokesperson for Environment Yukon.

Two bears — one in Hidden Valley and one in Mount Lorne — had to be killed recently. Both those incidents involved livestock, which can attract bears.

Conservation officer Ken Knutson told the News in a previous interview that once bears get into a chicken coop, they will almost always return and often have to be killed as a result.

All the recent bears that had to be killed for public safety reasons have involved livestock, said Heather Ashthorn, executive director of Wildwise Yukon.

Wildwise is a non-profit organization which seeks to reduce conflicts between wild animals and humans.

According to Wildwise, 52 human-bear conflicts were reported in 2016, with 10 bears killed. Many of these conflicts involved garbage and chicken coops, the organization said in a recent pamphlet.

Ashthorn said there had been a “renaissance” in farming in the Yukon, with many people raising livestock like chickens and goats for their own consumption. But this has led to more interactions between bears and farmers, she said, and farmers calling reporting bears because they are concerned for their property.

Electric fencing is the best way to prevent this, said Ashthorn.

Wildwise’s bills electric fencing as “safe, easy to use and affordable.” The pamphlet said the cost of installing electric fence around a 164-square-foot chicken coop was $622.

“It’s really uncomfortable to spend money. Electric fencing is an investment.… It’s really hard to make money as a farmer and most farmers are just feeding themselves,” said Ashthorn. “It’s still less expensive than replacing your flock (after bears eat them).”

In order for electric fencing and other wildlife conflict reduction initiatives to work, there needs to be “significant investment by the Yukon government,” she said.

Ashthorn said it is possible there are more bears out looking for food than usual because last year was a “very successful” year for bears, which means there are more mothers caring for cubs. The unusually dry conditions mean the green plants bears would usually be eating this time of year are not growing well, creating a shortage of food which makes human sources — such as chickens and garbage — much more attractive.

“Bears are smart, resourceful and travel long distances quickly,” Ashthorn said. “They won’t just sit around and not eat.”

Christina Macdonald, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society, said that there used to be a page on the Environment Yukon website where you could look at bear-human conflicts on a map and see how many had been killed, but that has since been removed.

Macdonald said the lack of public information on bears and the way conservation officers handle bear-human conflicts is a problem.

“How do conservation officers make calls on conflicts?” she said.

There are a few “hotspots” of bear research, such as Kluane Park, she said, but she hasn’t seen much work done beyond limited areas.

“I think our understanding of bears (in the territory) is almost zilch,” she said.

Macdonald said the recent online grizzly bear conservation and management survey conducted by Environment Yukon was “interesting.” The survey closed May 27.

“When I see a survey I tend to be skeptical because a survey is a great way to diffuse a potentially volatile subject like grizzly conservation … because no one knows what other people are saying,” she said.

“This management plan is the first for bears (in the Yukon) and will be an important one for setting the tone.”

It is unknown if the number of bear interactions this year are higher than last year. Environment Yukon didn’t respond to a request for current and historical numbers, including the number of bear-human conflicts reported to conservation officers each year and the number of bears killed in previous years.

Environment Yukon could not confirm that it keeps this data.

“We are quite busy at the moment with bear-related activity. There is significantly less rainfall than normal in Yukon for the month of May and this is affecting the availability of natural food sources for bears. As a result, this is a high risk time for human-bear conflict. Conservation officers have to prioritise public safety over requests for data,” Murchu wrote in an email.

A sow and three cubs were recently seen near Haines Junction, the environment department said in a May 30 press release. It asked that people take care to properly manage attractants.

“Managing attractants takes little effort and shows respect for bears. Bears are food motivated animals that will take the easiest meal they can get … no one wants wildlife to die needlessly,” the release said.

People who have concerns about bears or who encounter an animal in a residential area should call the TIPP line at 1-800-661-0525.

Contact Lori Garrison at lori.garrison@yukon-news.com

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