Letting sleeping bears lie

You don't need to venture into Yukon's backcountry to find a grizzly bear den. Just a five-minute stroll from one residential street on the outskirts of Whitehorse - the exact location will go unnamed.

You don’t need to venture into Yukon’s backcountry to find a grizzly bear den.

Just a five-minute stroll from one residential street on the outskirts of Whitehorse – the exact location will go unnamed, lest anyone disturb the site – and along a meandering footpath through lodgepole pine is a dark cavity, about one square metre in size, that sheltered a grizzly through the winter.

Parents of children playing nearby needn’t worry. The den was long ago abandoned, as evident from the green moss growing on the “porch”- a telltale mound of clay that was excavated as the bear dug its winter abode.

Nonetheless, Nathan Libal, a graduate student who is studying the site, was surprised to find a grizzly den at such a low altitude. Usually, grizzlies prefer higher climes.

It could be that grizzlies once denned at lower altitudes near Whitehorse before the city expanded, and pushed bears farther afield.

It’s all part of the puzzle that Libal hopes to solve through his study: what does a grizzly bear look for in a den site? In answering the question, it’s hoped the territory may be able to curb conflicts between bears and people, for their behalf and our own.

A den may collapse after a year or two, but grizzlies will often return to the same hillside to dig a new den. If favoured denning areas can be mapped, these areas can be flagged for snowmobiles and other backcountry users to avoid, to let sleeping bears lie, as it were.

A denning grizzly’s pulse and breathing may drop to half the animal’s usual rate, but the animal doesn’t fully hibernate. Studies have found that nearby motorized vehicles cause grizzlies to awaken and needlessly sap their energy. Repeated disturbances may cause a grizzly to abandon the den altogether.

Libal has identified about 15 dens so far. Some are as far afield as the outskirts of Teslin. “They’re sort of all over the place,” he said.

Most dens have been spotted from a circling plane or helicopter, during aerial surveys for a related study: a census of the grizzly population of the Southern Lakes region. But the site closest to Whitehorse was stumbled upon by a carnivore biologist as she walked her dog.

Yukon is home to between 6,000 to 7,000 grizzlies – one-quarter of Canada’s total population – and approximately 10,000 black bears.

In other words, for every two people in the Yukon, there’s one bear.

Yet, statistically, the traffic whirring along Second Avenue and Hamilton Boulevard poses a far greater threat than a grizzly bear does. Most bears would prefer to have nothing to do with us.

But rows of compost bins awaiting pickup along city streets sometimes prove too great a temptation, especially to young black bears that have rejected been ejected from their mother’s territory.

Brian Smart, a deputy conservation officer, describes the bear’s response: “Hey, this is awesome. It’s a buffet, and every 20 feet there’s eggshells and banana peels. I’m in heaven.”

Several black bears have been tranquilized and removed from neighbourhoods so far this summer, said Smart.

This spring a Dawsonite got in a tangle with a black bear sow, which “scared the hell out of the man and the bear” and left the man bitten “no worse than a dog bite,” said Smart.

Most recently, on Tuesday, a conservation officer shot a charging grizzly at Lake Creek campground, about 50 kilometres southeast of Beaver Creek.

The bear became hostile after the officer interrupted its feast: garbage, left by campers, that overflowed from the campground’s bins. The officer tried, without success, darting the bear with tranquilizer. Then it began charging the truck, so the officer shot it dead.

The bear also badly damaged the garbage bins during its nosh. Until they’re fixed – likely by the weekend – the campground will remain closed.

Smart spends each summer urging Yukoners to become “bear aware.” Much of this involves safely stowing away smelly foods that bears love. He suggests thinking twice before packing bacon on a camping trip, and to carefully washup cutting boards during fishing trips.

Do as Smart says, not as he does.

He offers one cautionary tale from his own experience. It was around 9 p.m. on July 1 last year, and Smart was driving home from the backcountry in a pickup

after a long day of helping the grizzly biologists bait traps, when he managed to bury his vehicle “up to the bumpers on both ends” in mud. There were no trees nearby to winch the truck free.

“To make matters worse, I have two buckets of fish guts, a dead elk and a dead beaver in the back of the truck,” he said. “My boots are all fished up and everything. No satellite phone. And my two-way radio has just died because I’d had it on all day.”

To top it off, Smart’s wife and kids were in Ontario, and the biologists didn’t expect to see him until morning. “Nobody’s going to miss me. Nobody’s going to know where I am.”

Smart teaches search and rescue. “My training always says stay with the vehicle. But they never talk about when you have dead animals in the back and you stink like one.”

So he left a note on the truck, grabbed his 12-gauge shotgun and backpack, and hiked for the road.

Thumbing a ride wasn’t easy. “Nobody picks you up when you’re carrying a 12-gauge, even in the Yukon,” he said.

Then Smart heard a crash behind him. “There’s this 120-pound black bear. He’s following me with his nose on the ground down the shoulder of the road.”

Smart threw rocks. It didn’t deter the bear. He fired a shot over its head and the bear lumbered into the forest. But, after crashing through the bush for a short time, it reappeared.

Smart fired two more shots. “As I do that, a guy in a pickup truck drives by. He leans on the horn and gives me the finger.”

The bear again retreated into the woods. Smart could hear it overtaking him.

As he turned a corner, the bear awaited near a streambed. Smart, screaming cuss-words in an effort to scare the bear, fired again, this time at the bear’s front paws, kicking up sand in its face.

“And that’s it, he takes off.”

Then he heard the whir of an engine. Nearby was a minivan occupied by a family returning from Canada Day festivities.

“They must have thought I was some guy with Tourette’s syndrome, because I’m just swearing up a storm. It would have made George Carlin blush,” said Smart.

Colleagues later asked Smart why he didn’t shoot the bear. He explains the animal hadn’t done anything wrong.

“He was being a bear. All the mistakes were mine. I would have felt really bad if I had to shoot him because of all the stupid things I had done. I teach bear-aware training. I should’ve known better.”

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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