An old, emaciated bear was shot and killed near the Whistler day lots this weekend, as a group of onlookers watched on, after it had reportedly shown increasingly aggressive behaviour in recent weeks, said the Conservation Officer Service (COS).
On Saturday, April 22, COS received two separate reports (in the span of about 30 minutes) of a black bear swatting and charging people in Whistler Village, said Sgt. Simon Gravel.
Those followed a number of similar reports over the past two weeks, as the conservation officers monitored the bear, which Gravel said had been “very active” around the village and surrounding area in that time.
“It was very lethargic, sleeping close to the trail, getting into garbage, entering an enclosed space in an underground parking lot,” he added. “We monitored and tried to shepherd it away from the village area a few times, but the bear was lethargic, not moving very quickly and appeared to be in very poor condition, but still mobile.”
Showing clear signs of distress, severely underweight and missing teeth, Gravel said that COs made the decision to shoot and kill the bear on Saturday, around 4 p.m., after it had charged an officer trying to assess the animal’s condition as it was laying down in a wooded area on the edge of Day Lot 3.
“After further assessment, the bear also charged at the officer, with a garbage bag hanging from its rear,” he said. “Just by the weight and condition of the bear, it was very obvious it was in distress.”
A public killing
Banff native Angelina Kellas was one of about 30 estimated people who she said witnessed the bear’s killing on Saturday afternoon. An ecological integrity monitor in the summer, and daughter of a 40-year wildlife management officer, Kellas said she was taken aback by the sudden and public nature of the shooting.
“It was crazy. Just from growing up in Banff, I’ve never heard of wildlife being managed that way,” she said. “It depends on the situation, but obviously I don’t have the background context of what was happening with this bear. Maybe the bear was an immediate threat to the public and that’s why they had to do it.”
Initially, Kellas said the scene seemed “crazy and chaotic” as COs and attending RCMP officers cordoned members of the public from a pathway close to where the bear was located.
“The lady pushing us back the other way said it was for our safety; she didn’t tell us why or what was happening. We walked by another police officer on the path who didn’t say anything either,” she said.
Even still, Kellas said the group had a full view, moments later, when the bear was abruptly shot several times point-blank with a handgun.
“All of us were shocked and it was kind of traumatic, I feel like,” she recalled. “My one friend heard the gunshots and went down on the ground because she didn’t know where it was coming from.”
Gravel stressed that the use of a firearm so close to onlookers and the village was a “last resort” on the part of COs.
“We don’t like using a firearm in a busy area, but it’s definitely a last resort, and when we do have to do that, every element of safety is considered. Our officers are well trained to ensure the discharge of a firearm will cause zero risk,” he explained. “That sometimes involves crowd control. If we have the option to capture a bear and euthanize it in a different location, we would do it, but it’s also risky in some situations.”
Tranquilizing or “darting” a bear doesn’t necessarily mean the animal will fall asleep immediately, “so there’s some time delay there, and depending on the assessment, that delay could allow the bear to move to a different area, a public area, or cause traffic issues,” added Gravel. “In this case, it was judged to be safe to do so. It was the most humane thing to do, and efforts were made to ensure people were not in proximity.”
Tagged in 2008 on Whistler Mountain for a research project, the bear that was killed had generated no reports of conflict over the years until recent weeks, according to the COS.
“So, it is possible to have bears living in Whistler, and having wildlife without conflict with humans,” said Gravel. “This makes me somehow happy and optimistic about our bears in Whistler.
“If the bear hadn’t come down and sought unnatural food from the village, it would have probably died in the wild without us knowing.”
At the time of its death, the bear was a fraction of the 245 pounds it weighed when captured in 2008, coming in at an estimated 60 pounds, Gravel said.
A perception of heavy-handedness
The COS has been criticized, both locally and provincially, for its apparent heavy-handedness in killing bears, with conservationists arguing in favour of more non-lethal interventions to be used more frequently.
In Whistler, that has led to a certain reluctance among some to report problem bear behaviour over a fear the animal will be killed by the COS. Comparatively speaking, however, Whistler sees far fewer bears killed by the COS than in many other B.C. communities.
Last summer, animal welfare organization The Fur-Bearers published a database detailing bear killings in every community across the province from 2015 to 2021, information obtained through a Freedom of Information request. Topping the list was Prince George, where 36 bears were killed by COs in 2021, a far cry from the two bears killed in Whistler the same year. In fact, bear killings in the resort have been on a steady downswing since at least 2015, when eight bears were killed.
Still, Gravel worried about the perception Saturday’s shooting could create in the community.
“Yes, of course, [I worry] and that’s why we reach out to the media and give the totality of the situation, so people better understand what’s happened,” he said. “We’re not going to extend the life of a dying bear in cases like this. The only exception would be in the case of bear cubs, but suffering animals like this are euthanized. Maybe we cannot please everyone with this management decision, but that’s how it is determined by a biologist and that’s where the province stands right now.”
Two more bears found dead
Two other bears were found dead in the Whistler area in recent weeks, not long after emerging from winter hibernation, the COS confirmed.
About three weeks ago, the COS received a report from Cheakamus Crossing of a “lethargic,” largely immobile bear in the neighbourhood. Once officers attended to assess the bear, they found it had died.
About a week ago, a similar instance took place in the Rutherford, north of Whistler, when workers discovered a dead bear that had recently emerged from den.
In both cases, the bears were believed to be subadults who did not obtain enough food heading into hibernation.
“The mortality of young, subadult bears that didn’t find enough food to survive the winter is fairly common,” said Gravel, adding that, because Whistler is such a busy area compared to more remote areas of B.C. where bears reside, it’s more likely the public will occasionally find dead bears in the late winter or early spring.
Spring wildlife safety tips
Longtime bear-viewing guide and educator Ellie Lamb had some tips for Whistlerites and visitors as local bears grow more active heading further into spring.
First off? Learning to manage your fear around bears.
“It doesn’t matter what happens with bears, if someone is afraid of them, the perception is the bear is a threat and it is fear that skews our ability to actually listen to what these animals are trying to communicate and what they’re doing,” she said.
When you’re on a trail, Lamb advised to have bear spray handy, and to get off the trail if you spot a bear there.
“If a bear is on a trail, get off the trail and let the bear walk by. Don’t chase him back because they want to go somewhere and they’re sometimes not that easy to chase away and have them go back to the place they just came from.”
It’s also important to not be nonchalant when a bear is near or on your property, Lamb said. Be stern and speak loudly to the bear, or clang pots and pans to let them know they are not welcome.
“Being in the community is a safety strategy that bears have learned because they are smart, intelligent animals and it works for them,” she said. “It’s the vulnerable population that comes close to the community; that’s why they’re there, so we don’t want to make it easier for them to sleep near our doors.”
Managing wildlife attractants, such as bird feeders, barbecues, and trash, is another essential practice for any bear-smart community.
“They will eat attractants that are easy and accessible, and from there, they can get smarter on how to access these attractants, and that’s when cars get accessed,” Lamb said. “We don’t want any of that and the bears don’t want to behave badly, so we have to teach in a way that is not comfortable for them, and in doing so, making sure the attractants aren’t easily accessible in the first place.”
For more tips on bear safety, visit adventuresmart.ca/wildlife.