Charles Schewen, Heather Ashthorn & Mike Walton | Special to the News
Whitehorse —the “Wilderness City” — is home to humans and wildlife. Sightings and close encounters are common. Many of us speak with pride about living in close proximity to wildlife and express an appreciation for opportunities to see wildlife where we live, work and play.
However, records kept by Yukon government show a long history of humans creating conflict with wildlife, primarily by mismanagement of attractants. Over 70 per cent of the 120 human-bear conflicts reported to conservation officers in the City of Whitehorse since 2012 were garbage and compost related.
The City of Whitehorse is responsible for residential waste collection and management within the urban containment boundary. The city supplies homeowners with garbage and compost containers that are not wildlife resistant. The Whitehorse waste management bylaw does not contain any significant guidelines to empower residents to secure attractants and the guidelines that are provided are, essentially, unenforceable and unenforced. The garbage bins provided by the city have become a wildlife attractant and food-conditioned bears are destroyed every year when they access residential wastes.
The Yukon government’s conservation officers are left to take up the slack created by the city’s lack of enforcement which seriously diminishes their ability to focus on prevention and conservation.
In 2016, the City of Whitehorse, along with WildWise Yukon, the Yukon government, Kwanlin Dün First Nation and Ta’an Kwäch’än Council committed funding to assess risks to humans and bears in Whitehorse. The key recommendation in the assessment is to prevent conflict by providing bear-resistant containers to all residents and businesses.
In 2017 and again in 2018 the city purchased additional non-bear-proof bins and committed significant funds to the purchase of waste haulers that are not compatible with the garbage management system recommended in the Whitehorse Bear Hazard Assessment.
Further, city council and senior management ceased to provide direction to its employees to participate in its own bear working group, seriously undermining its ability to collaborate with its partners. The City of Whitehorse has not made any commitment to action on this important recommendation and has repeatedly ignored advice from scientists, experts and partners to take steps toward dealing with the problem.
Development of new subdivisions in wilderness areas, marketing the city as a wilderness destination, encouraging tourism by leveraging wildlife viewing and encouraging increased use of trails and green spaces all increase potential for negative human-wildlife encounters.
Until the city develops strategies and commits to action to mitigate this risk, it is taking on liability and delaying progress to reduce conflicts. Its own goal to reduce conflict by 2020, outlined in the Whitehorse Sustainability Plan, will not be met. With increased human population within the wilderness areas, combined with the many garbage attractants in town, there is significant risk of a serious human injury and continued, unnecessary destruction of wildlife.
To demonstrate an appreciation for the integral value of wildlife within the city, our municipal government must build capacity to study, monitor, prevent and respond to human-wildlife conflicts. Inaction increases pressure on non-government organizations, First Nations and the Yukon government to respond to the call to conserve and protect wildlife within the city.
We encourage all Whitehorse residents to consider wildlife in the upcoming municipal election and to hold the City of Whitehorse accountable to its responsibility to reduce human-wildlife conflict. Ask your city councillors to commit to simple changes to make our city more sustainable for the resident wildlife populations and safer for the people who live, work, play and visit here.
Things the city could do include:
Develop a wildlife attractants bylaw that provides an enforceable framework for reducing conflict and commitment to enforcement of the bylaw;
Purchase bear-resistant garbage, compost and recycling bins for all residential properties, including those in country residential areas;
Require dedicated wildlife-resistant waste storage areas for all new residential and commercial buildings;
Require the use of bear-resistant dumpsters for commercial users in locations accessible to bears;
Include clear requirements and guidelines for all flock, apiary and other food producers to secure attractants with electric fencing or equivalent security in the Urban Agriculture and Food Strategy;
Commit to consideration of wildlife in all planning processes;
Commit to participation and leadership on an interagency bear working group;
Develop and implement a human-wildlife conflicts management plan that identifies actions, timelines and measurable outcomes.
Charles Schewen is president of the Yukon Fish & Game Association. Heather Ashthorn is executive director of WildWise Yukon. Mike Walton is executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society.