Environment Yukon spokesperson Erin Loxam, from left, human-wildlife conflict prevention officer Aaron Koss-Young, and director of conservation officer services Gordon Hitchcock, speak to media on Dec. 18 about bear conflict in the territory. (Jackie Hong/Yukon News)

Yukon human-bear conflicts in 2018 highest on record, Environment Yukon officials say

Number of bears killed went down but conflicts, especially in the southern Yukon, went up

While fewer bears were killed by humans in the Yukon in 2018 compared to last year, there were more recorded human-bear conflicts than ever, according to newly-released data from Environment Yukon.

According to preliminary numbers, conservation officers killed 33 bears over the 2018 season while members of the public killed another 21, human-wildlife conflict prevention officer Aaron Koss-Young told media during a technical briefing Dec. 18, adding up to a total of 54.

That’s 11 fewer bears than last year’s all-time high of 65, when conservation officers killed 39 bears and the public killed 26.

However, 2018 also saw the highest number of bear conflicts on record, with 267 incidents compared to last year’s 206. Forty-three of those conflicts were in the Whitehorse area alone, Koss-Young said, the highest number ever recorded in the city.

A poor production year for wild berries combined with the fact that as Whitehorse grows, some residents are still not properly securing bear attractants are likely contributing factors to the high number of conflicts, Koss-Young said.

“Between the lack of one (food) source and the availability of the other, we saw a lot of bears feeding on home-grown produce this year, like fruit trees, in Whitehorse yards,” he said.

“More people mean more houses, mean more garbage, more compost, more bird-feeders, more fruit trees — all in all, more attractants.”

In one case, Koss-Young recounted, a black bear discovered an unsecured tank of cooking oil that was being stored and refined into biodiesel. When a conservation officer arrived on scene, he found that the bear had learned to turn on the tank’s tap and was “chugging the oil as fast as it could.”

“Bears are animals,” Koss-Young said. “They’ll follow their nose and access human food sources if they are easy to get to.”

Conservation officers also translocated close to 51 black bears and seven grizzlies this season, for a total of 58, compared to 10 bears last year.

While translocation may seem like an ideal solution, Koss-Young said it isn’t always the best or most effective one when it comes to dealing with a problem bear. The operations take time and effort, he explained, and can not only put the safety of conservation officers at risk but can also be extremely stressful and disorienting for the bears, too.

“I liken it to basically waking up in a new country with a really bad tattoo, a new earring and a really bad hangover,” Koss-Young said. “And just imagine a bear waking up somewhere else with the same disposition, not knowing where its food sources are or who its friends and enemies are.”

As well, bears are known for their ability to “hone in” on food sources and travel great distances to return to ones they find particularly rewarding, he said, giving an example of a black bear sow and her three cubs who were captured and moved after they were found feeding on a chokecherry trees at a Riverdale home.

Conservation officers drove the bears 100 kilometres north of Whitehorse before releasing them, Koss-Young said, but, 10 days later, the entire family was back in Riverdale. Conservation officers captured the bears again and this time, relocated them via helicopter 100 km away.

Five days later, one of the cubs, having been separated from the rest of the group, had found its way back to Riverdale. To do so, it would have had to cross two mountain ranges and several rivers, Koss-Young said. Conservation officers relocated the cub a third time but in November it came into conflict over unsecured dog food and had to be euthanized.

The best way to deal with bear conflicts, Koss-Young emphasized, is to prevent them in the first place, something that can be achieved by Yukoners securing attractants. Besides obvious ones like garbage, compost and hunting scraps, bears can also be attracted to pet food, petroleum products, smoke houses and the shells left on the ground by bird-feeders, he said.

Homeowners and communities can also look into buying bear-proof garbage bins, he said, and a pilot project is underway with Selkirk First Nation, Kwanlin Dün First Nation and Ta’an Kwäch’än Council to replace wooden bins in their communities with specially-designed metal ones.

“We share our communities and wilderness with healthy populations of wildlife, including black bears and grizzly bears, and we all have a role to play in keeping ourselves and our communities safe and our bears wild and alive,” Koss-Young said. “This responsibility is critical.”

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com