By Loreth Beswetherick
The summer of 1999 has been tough on the Whistler RCMP and local conservation officers — not because of the problem bears they have had to deal with but because of a troubling public perception that has been dogging them when it comes to their bear management methods.
"It's frustrating and it's difficult to deal with at times," said conservation officer Dan LeGrandeur. "We are working hard on this program and it never seems to be enough for people."
LeGrandeur is referring to Whistler's non-lethal bear management tactics — including bear bangers, screamers and rubber bullets — currently being used to scare bears out of potential human/bear conflict situations.
He said although their method may not actually train the bears to avoid garbage, he said twice the number of bears would have been shot this year without it.
There have been 15 bears destroyed in the municipal area so far this year and LeGrandeur said the rough period of the season is now over. That number compares with a total of 18 destroyed in 1998. There has, however, been a substantial increase in the number of bear complaints coming out of Whistler this year. As of Sept. 8, the conservation office had received a total of 495 complaints from the Sea to Sky area. More than half came out of Whistler. The RCMP attended 250 of those complaints and used "aversive conditioning" techniques in about a third of the cases. Last year there were 131 complaints out of Whistler.
"I have read through the bear complaints we have been receiving and keeping very close tabs on this program. I am very confident in saying at least double the bears would have been shot to date if we did not have this other method," LeGrandeur said. He added about half of the bears destroyed have had to be put down because they were injured, many as a result of car accidents.
Until this summer, all bear complaints were referred straight to the conservation office. This season, RCMP are providing the first line of response and will "deal with the situation as best they can," said LeGrandeur. A report is then filed and immediately faxed to the conservation office. If there is a garbage problem, the bylaw department will also be contacted.
Const. Joe Leeson, who sits on the Black Bear Task Team, said officers will always respond to a bear complaint in pairs. Both will carry shotguns — one loaded with bangers, rubber bullets or paint bean bags, the other with lethal rounds for protection.
"We will go after and keep harassing the bear so much it doesn't want to come back," Leeson said.
He added the dense vegetation in Whistler limits the harassment, unlike the terrain in Mammoth Lakes where Whistler drew inspiration for the techniques.
Leeson said he personally has never killed a bear and he never wants to, but he has been accosted by members of the public who think that because he is carrying a shotgun he is going to use lethal force.
Traps set for bears have also being sprung and vandalized by well-intentioned but misguided individuals, said LeGrandeur.
For example, a bear trapped at Nicklaus North was set free by a golf course employee this summer. LeGrandeur said, after a joint RCMP and conservation office investigation it was decided charges would not be laid against the individual who meant well but was "unfortunately very misguided."
The trap was reset with a lock on it but the bear was again sprung, this time with the aid of bolt cutters. LeGrandeur said this is dangerous and can result in criminal mischief charges. It will also likely result in the bear being shot, as happened with a bear that had been frequenting the municipal dog pound area. The trap there had also been vandalized.
"The bear ended up going into the garbage in the underground parking lot and he was destroyed. That could have been prevented if we had been able to trap him and move him out," said LeGrandeur. Although relocation is not the method du jour, it is still being used.
LeGrandeur said things look very different today from when he arrived on the scene six years ago.
"I just look at the work (bear researcher) Michael Allen has done. The Whistler municipality has taken gigantic steps toward improving their garbage situation. The RCMP have taken on this extra workload plus my partner Steve Jacobi and I are monitoring this program very closely, but sometimes it seems like we are just beating our heads against a brick wall... it always comes back to the same issues, but we have made drastic improvements."
LeGrandeur said he will be compiling a report for the Ministry of Environment on the non-lethal management techniques at the end of the month. "My recommendation will be that we continue the program."
He said bear complaints in Whistler went through he roof during the early part of the season due to a late lingering snowpack that drove the bruins into the valley in search of food. He said the activity has now decreased in Whistler and he expects most bears in the valley now will be foraging for fruit. "We will be fine if we can keep them out of the garbage."
He said, however, complaints in Squamish have "gone crazy," while in Pemberton most of the bears are concentrated in the upper Meadows area. The two conservation officers who cover the area from Squamish to D’Arcy have also had to deal with further budget cuts this summer, which resulted in the loss of their receptionist.
"It's been a frustrating year but it has been a very good learning experience for everybody."