Conservation groups are warning that what appears to be an orphaned black bear cub won’t survive the cold Whistler winter on its own without intervention, but a lack of clarity from the province on trapping and transporting orphaned bears is preventing it from being picked up.
The Conservation Officer Service (COS) confirmed that a young bear that appeared to be separated from its mother was reported on Nov. 18, three days after it was spotted in the Wedge Woods area. Sgt. Simon Gravel said it was the only sighting he was aware of, although WildSafe B.C.’s Wildlife Alert Reporting Program, which collates reports to the COS, indicated that reports of a cub were also made in Whistler on Oct. 16 and 29. (WildSafe notes that “very few” of the data points it collects from a variety of sources have been officially confirmed.)
“In this particular case, we didn’t receive any information that this bear was in distress,” said Gravel, who added that the COS attended the scene after the Nov. 18 report and was unable to track down the bear.
“We asked the public to report it to the RAPP line. We liaised with the [provincial] biologist … and if there are further sightings and there’s an obvious bear cub in distress, then our job is to assist and be instrumental to its capture.”
But conservation groups argue the cub isn’t likely to survive the winter on its own and should be trapped and transported as soon as possible to Langley’s Critter Care Wildlife Society, one of only three bear rehabilitation facilities in the province.
“It’s too small for this time of year. They should up upwards of 80 pounds for this time of year. He’s maybe 20, 30 [pounds], based on the pictures,” said Nathan Luke Wagstaffe, senior wildlife technician at Critter Care.
There has been some mixed messaging as to the policy around rearing and releasing orphaned bear cubs. According to an emailed statement from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO), which declined an interview, organizations like the COS and Critter Care have authority to capture and transport cubs on their own. Wagstaffe, meanwhile, said Critter Care is “more than happy” to assist in the capture and transit of the cub, but “we just need to be given permission to do so, which can take a while.” When asked what was holding up the process, Wagstaffe declined comment, noting that the organization is not permitted to speak on political issues.
Lesley Fox, executive director of wildlife advocacy charity The Fur-Bearers, said the confusion speaks to a lack of clear direction from Victoria.
“When it comes to orphaned bear cubs, there is no clear policy and there never was,” she said. “The very first problem when talking about orphaned bear cubs is that the government, and that’s all levels of government, including the B.C. COS, does not value individual animals. They view animals as a commodity, as a resource, as a population or as a species, and so individuals pose no financial benefit.”
Adding to the complication is the provincial legislation dictating that only orphaned black bears of the year shown to be of good size and health are eligible for rearing and release, which would necessitate a physical assessment of the bear. In its statement, FLNRO said, as it is not the field response agency for wildlife in distress, “we did not attend on scene nor did we make arrangements to make a field assessment on the situation.” Muddying the waters further, Gravel from the COS, said that whenever reports of an orphaned cub come in, the agency “immediately” involves a provincial biologist “because it’s their mandate at that point—it’s not a COS mandate.”
Ellie Lamb, director of Get Bear Smart Whistler, argued that field assessments should be done away with entirely and that orphaned cubs should be taken directly to rehab centres like Critter Care.
“The cub should go to a rehab centre and then their vet assesses the cub there … and that’s the only way you know it’s been a thorough assessment, not just a field observation,” she said.
Clarifying both the COS and FLNRO’s respective mandates when it comes to wildlife would go a long way towards shoring up the confusion amongst the public, said Fox, who argued that, as a policing agency, the COS should fall under the umbrella of B.C.’s Solicitor General, not the Ministry of Environment, as it currently stands.
“When you come across an orphan bear cub, the question of, ‘This bear needs help, who do I call?’ should be a very straightforward answer and the truth is it’s not. The answer to that scenario is, ‘Well, it depends,’” she said. “It depends if the COS shot the mom, in which case there’s a duty of care to bring the cub to rehab. But if it’s not clear or if the mom was hit by a car, killed by a hunter or the mom just didn’t show up, then technically it is FLNRO’s responsibility.”
Fox, whose Fur-Bearers challenged the COS’ power to destroy wild animals at its own discretion in a case that was ultimately thrown out in 2019 by Canada’s Supreme Court, believes the agency needs to stick to enforcing wildlife laws and public safety.
“They have one foot in the world of wildlife management and one foot in the world of policing and enforcement. It’s not working,” she said.
“They are police officers, so the only thing they should be providing commentary on is if there was an offence and is there a public safety issue. Anything outside of those two parameters is editorializing. It’s not up to them to have any opinion on anything that can be perceived to be animal health, wildlife management or behaviour.”
The B.C. COS has come under fire before for its decision-making around killing wildlife. The most high-profile incident came in 2015 when conservation officer Bryce Casavant was fired for refusing to kill two orphaned cubs after their mother was shot for raiding an outdoor freezer near Port Hardy.
In Whistler, that sentiment has taken the form of a general reluctance among some residents to report wildlife sightings and encounters to the COS over fear that the animal will inevitably be killed, something that was clearly evident in the recent provincial court case of Zuzana Stevikova. In September, the Whistler woman received a combined $60,000 fine for feeding a sow and two cubs from the backyard of her Kadenwood home during the summer of 2018, leading to the COS killing the food-conditioned bears. Stevikova, who purchased up to 10 cases of apples, 50 pounds of carrots and 15 dozen eggs on a weekly basis, told the court that she noticed the bears “looked skinny” and, by feeding them, believed she was preventing the public from calling the COS.
“Bears are tolerated by the community, much more than in other locations,” said Judge Lyndsay Smith in her Sept. 29 decision.