Commentary: Consider the city’s bears when going to mark your ballot

Those in the municipal election should commit to developing a human-bear conflict management plan

Heather Ashthorn

Humans and bears come into conflict for all kinds of reasons. Bears are smart, learn fast and have to eat a lot. Humans build villages, towns and cities in the same places bears forage: sunny, productive, convenient environments.

Bears like garbage. Humans leave garbage lying around everywhere. Bears like trails because they make travelling through the bush easier and are often lined with berries and other high quality food. Humans build a lot of trails through bear habitat.

Bears can be easily surprised, probably because they are busy eating. Humans like to travel fast, let dogs off leash, and listen to music while we’re out on the trails. We often don’t watch where we’re going. We entice bears to our yards with bird feeders, compost piles, backyard chickens, meat smokers, outdoor freezers, petroleum products and ornamental fruit-bearing shrubs.

Bears are happy to eat just about anything and the easier to access, the better. Less energy spent finding food equals a better chance of surviving a long, cold winter.

Every election is an opportunity to change the way we do things. If you are not running for council in the upcoming City of Whitehorse election, please ask those who are to prioritize human and bear safety by reinstating the Whitehorse bear working group, committing to developing a human-bear conflict management plan and improving our waste management practices.

If you are running, please ask people for their ideas about reducing human-bear conflict. Read the draft of the territorial grizzly conservation plan. Call us at WildWise to chat about what can be done. We look forward to your call.

It is challenging to change the way we do things but not impossible. Other communities have successfully reduced conflict by taking on better waste management practices, such as providing all residents with bear-resistant waste carts.

Some have provided incentives to replace fruit-bearing ornamental shrubs with less attractive varieties and organized ripe fruit picks. They have written bylaws that provide direction to flock owners, egg producers and apiaries to use electric fencing around these major attractants and to restaurant owners for securing food wastes and garbage.

Some of these communities have waited for a fatal mauling before action is taken, but we don’t have to do that. We could decide that it is enough that we are responsible for destroying so many bears over our garbage and put pressure on our governments to fix the problem, and for our governments to put pressure on citizens to change our practices. It is possible to create a new culture of caring.

Bears can easily get used to being around humans. Some say they are highly tolerant animals. Humans, not so much.

In 2017 more than 60 bears were killed in Yukon when they came into conflict with humans. They died primarily when they did what bears do and came looking for something to eat.

While many just pass through, some bears become aggressive when they find a food source and proceed to defend it. Chasing, trapping, tagging, translocating and sometimes killing these food-conditioned bears is time consuming and expensive as well as, for the most part, unnecessary. It also erodes our perception of and trust in government services which are diverted away from conservation to manage the results of bad human behavior.

Yukon now has a conservation plan for grizzly bears. The plan clearly states that Yukoners think grizzlies are important. It also says that we don’t know how many there are here and reducing conflict is positive action for conservation. Which begs the question, whose problem is this to solve?

WildWise Yukon has a new tool to help people understand the scope of the problem. In 2017 we were tasked with extracting all human-wildlife conflict reports from calls made to conservation officers and creating a searchable database including time, location, attractants involved and outcomes.

In partnership with Yukon College, we have taken all of the incidents that involved bears and created a map which can be looked at a year at a time, by month, by species, by attractant or all of these at once. The map includes all incidents in the Whitehorse district. Our intent is to include other districts as we are able as well as to include new years as data is made available. Looking at the map, it is clear that no longer can any of us say, “It’s not us!”

We encourage all Yukoners to visit the map. It can be found on our website: www.wildwise.ca. It is easy to use and interesting to explore.

In the meantime, please secure your garbage, put your bird feeders away until November, surround your chicken coops, feed and compost piles with electric fencing, harvest your berries as they ripen and take your bear spray with you every time you go hiking, running and cycling. There is no reason to keep on the way we are. We cannot expect a different result if we do.

Heather Ashthorn is the executive director of WildWise Yukon, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping Yukoners reduce human-wildlife conflict.

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