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Saving bears from themselves

Before the territory's bears wake up this spring, the Yukon government is working to rouse Yukoners to the issue of bear safety.

Before the territory’s bears wake up this spring, the Yukon government is working to rouse Yukoners to the issue of bear safety.

In the budget released last week it has put aside $75,000 to cover the costs of the new wildlife conflict prevention program.

Some of that money will be used to help increase the capacity of conservation officers, who had a particularly busy season last year, said Currie Dixon, the minister of environment.

“Last summer we had COs literally going 24/7, the middle of the night, middle of the day, and that really takes away from a lot of their other duties,” he said.

But it wasn’t just busy. It was “tragic,” said Ken Knutson, manager of field operations for the department.

“The hypothesis last year was that it was a cool spring so we didn’t get a lot of insect activity, which meant that we didn’t get a lot of pollination of the berry crops or the forage crops that bears normally feed on, and that forced them to search more widely for food,” he said.

And that was bad news for the bears.

In 2012, conservation officers killed 16 bears that were deemed a safety risk, with another five killed by members of the public defending their lives or property.

Options for dealing with bears are limited, said Knutson.

Conservation officers try to scare bears away, but that’s hard to do with ones that have become habituated to human food or garbage, he said.

They relocated 17 bears last year, but that doesn’t always work either.

It’s not uncommon for bears to come wandering back, and those that do usually end up being killed, said Knutson.

When it comes to dangerous wildlife, the conservation officers can’t take a chance on the public getting hurt so animals are killed and a lot of the killing could have been prevented, he said.

The best way to deal with bears is to manage food and garbage so they don’t have a reason to come around in the first place, but after 25 years on the job Knutson knows that’s easier said than done.

“We’ve been broadcasting these messages that long and longer and it seems we still have these cases of individuals who just don’t get it,” he said.

People who don’t heed these warnings could face fines this year.

“The Wildlife Act basically says that it’s an offence to leave food or garbage in a place where dangerous wildlife can have access to it,” said Knutson. “In the past we preferred to go the route of public education ... but we’ve also come to realize that there are some people that are just not getting the messages and we are going to look at using enforcement tools more frequently for those people moving forward.”

But that doesn’t mean that the department is giving up on education.

Some of that money will go to one of the territory’s newest non-profits, Wild Wise Yukon.

The organization, modelled after similar groups in B.C., was formed in November last year by five Yukoners who were alarmed by the number of bears being killed.

“The goal is to provide an educational component to what Environment’s already doing, but the big overall goal is to reduce the number of human-wildlife conflicts,” said Nicole Tattam, one of the organization’s directors.

“We want to make people passionate about the wildlife and we want to make them realize that they can help stop wildlife being killed, that there are things that people can easily do to mitigate these conflicts,” she said. “I think when people have the tools and they can be part of the solution that they’ll want to help.”

This summer, they hope to put on a speaker tour with presentations from bear biologists and conservation officers.

Eventually the group hopes to start helping conservation officers with scaring animals away, but that’s a long-term goal that will take time and training, said Tattam.

Last year was one of the busiest seasons since the Whitehorse landfill was fenced off in the ‘90s.

When that happened, several large grizzly bears were found to be using the dump and they only came out at night.

“If you sat there in the truck and watched them come out it was like these ghosts coming out of the dark,” said Knutson. “If you made any noise at all they’d take off, so nobody realized there was that number of bears using the landfill.”

The hope was that the bears, being so timid, would just move on, but they didn’t.

“They started ripping into sheds, ripping into garages and our only response at that point is to kill them,” he said.

Fifteen large, 181- to 227-kilogram, bears ended up being shot.

“They’re the kind of animals that you want in the wilderness with established home ranges and reproducing,” said Knutson. “Again, another tragic thing.”

Given the number of bears that were killed last year, and with the Farmers’ Almanac predicting a warm spring, Knutson is hopeful that we won’t have a repeat of last year, but it’s really hard to guess, he said.

“We’ve got a conservation concern with the population in this area, so we need to move forward keeping in mind that the fewer we have to kill now, the better it’s going to be for the bears in the area.”

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