Two more black bears are dead in the Sea to Sky corridor after conservation officers deemed the animals’ behaviour to be a public safety threat.
The first was killed Friday morning, Aug. 19 in Garibaldi Provincial Park after accessing backpacks strung near the Taylor Meadows campground west of Garibaldi Lake. The bear was “displaying behaviour determined to be too much of a public safety risk,” said a spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Environment in a statement.
“Putting down any bear is an unfortunate outcome that we work so hard to prevent,” the statement continued. “The bear repeatedly accessed food bags from caches, returned to the campground numerous times and showed a minimal fear of people.”
Photos published by CBC News show the bear climbing a tree to reach the packs hung in a pulley system near Garibaldi Lake designed to keep campers’ food and other attractants away from wildlife. Handwritten notes dated Wednesday, Aug. 17 can be seen in another image posted by the public broadcaster, warning campers about a bear “guarding” a pack it had snagged from the cache.
“Bears that are conditioned to human food sources are not candidates for relocation or rehabilitation, due to the risk to public safety,” the spokesperson said.
Later on Friday, a second black bear was killed after finding food in a more residential area of Whistler.
Authorities received a report on Aug. 19 about a large, adult male black bear that had entered an occupied home in Emerald through a back door, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) explained in a notice shared to social media, based off information provided by the BC Conservation Officer Service (COS).
Conservation officers confirmed the bear had previously been captured and relocated in 2018 after visiting homes’ upper decks and pawing at windows. “In subsequent years, this bear was relocated two further times, one of those being a long-distance relocation this year for similar and further behaviours,” the notice read. “Amongst the relocations COS have made countless attempts to haze this bear.”
The same bear had also been observed eating food off camping tables, tipping over commercial garbage bins and entering “multiple” homes in search of food, in some cases by forcing entry that caused damage to the properties.
As COS staff wrote in the notice, the animal was “dispatched due to its continuing and escalating behaviour being a public safety concern.”
Pique confirmed the bear was killed at around 10:30 p.m. after entering numerous occupied buildings, including the home where it was ultimately located.
The unfortunate incident in Emerald was far from the only case of a bear entering a residence in Whistler this summer. Another adult black bear was killed one week earlier, on Aug. 12, after visiting several occupied properties in Creekside. Conservation officers said they’ve received a rash of reports of black bears gaining entry to homes throughout the resort in recent weeks, and urged Whistler locals and visitors in all neighbourhoods to keep all doors and windows locked, particularly when they’re not in the room.
“Bears are being extremely persistent and going to great lengths to access food, including entering occupied homes and properties,” the notice explained. “It is important that as a community we work together to help keep our residents safe and our bears safe and wild.”
Sea to Sky bear deaths trending downwards over seven-year period
A group advocating on behalf of British Columbia’s wildlife contacted the provincial auditor general in July asking for an independent audit of the BC COS. The Fur-Bearers cited a lack of financial transparency and a “relatively constant level in the number of bear killings” since 2015, as Glacier Media reported last month.
Prior to submitting their request, the Fur-Bearers had released data obtained through a freedom of information request that showed, over seven years ending in 2021, the number of black bears killed in B.C. had climbed to 3,779, hovering between 415 and 632 deaths per year.
Data accessed through freedom of information laws show that in 2021, for example, 581 black bears were killed by conservation officers across the province, while the BC COS carried out 85 compliance and enforcement actions under the Wildlife Act. It also broke down the number of bears killed in each community.
According to that data, black bear deaths within Whistler have consistently trended downward since 2015, when eight bears were killed by conservation officers. There were four bears killed in the resort in 2018, three in 2019, and two last year. The black bear put down in Emerald on Friday marks the third killed due to conflict within Whistler’s municipal boundaries this summer.
In Pemberton, meanwhile, 12 black bears were killed in 2015. That number dropped to four in 2016, before falling further to just one in 2020. No black bears were killed as a result of conflict in 2021. A female bear was put down in Pemberton earlier this summer after biting two women in two different incidents in the Riverside Wetlands area.
‘We need to learn from it, not kill the bear for it'
For longtime bear viewing guide and advocate Ellie Lamb, those numbers are still too high.
She disagrees with authorities when it comes to the notion of “habituated” or “food-conditioned” bears, including in the case of the backpack-snatcher at Taylor Meadows. In Lamb’s view, “We need to learn from it, not kill the bear for it,” she said. “There’s going be another bear come and figure it out, too.”
Lamb added, “To kill a bear for coming into an area that he doesn’t know he’s not allowed to be in is just extremely unfair.”
She suggested installing electric fences as humane, non-lethal attractant management tools that can successfully keep bears out of camping and food storage areas, including in the backcountry.
Black bears are naturally inclined to coexist peacefully with other species, said Lamb, and tend to spend time in communities because it's where the animals feel safe. However, bears travelling through communities often need to be taught about boundaries and territories the same way they are in wilder, more remote areas, but in a manner that doesn’t leave them “traumatized” by humans, she said.
“Human dominance is really important with some bears when they’re young,” Lamb explained. The animals should respect humans, but not necessarily fear them, she continued, “because that is when you get the wildcard,” whose distrust of humans could, potentially, manifest in more aggressive behaviour.
In the case of bears entering homes, Lamb said that is typically the result of an animal that has become increasingly comfortable around residential properties. When dealing with a black bear that is sniffing around a home or getting too cozy in an area where it shouldn’t be—for example, sleeping on a porch—Lamb said people’s response should “start low and go high.” From a safe, distanced position like a balcony or window, begin with softer tactics, speaking firmly, “like you’re speaking to a naughty teenager,” she suggested. If the bear doesn’t respond, have some small rocks available to throw at the animal. Finally, even using a small amount of bear spray can reach up to about 10 metres in distance, in some cases even further.
All bears will bluff-charge when under enough pressure, said Lamb, but “the bear will not stay there and bluff-charge when he’s been sprayed by bear spray.”
Though black bear attacks are extremely rare, the ones that do occur disproportionately involve dogs. With that in mind, Lamb also reminds Whistlerites to keep pets leashed.
“I think we need to work together as a community to keep these animals alive,” she said.
The BC COS officially describes itself “the armed law-enforcement agency tasked with both protecting wildlife and destroying large predators when they threaten public safety,” but Lamb prefers to think of the agency as “the muscle.”
She said she’d like to see that “muscle” used instead on poachers, and used to issue tickets and fines to people whose behaviour or negligence draws bears into dangerous situations. Lamb also calls for the implementation of an independent public body to hold the BC COS accountable.
In Lamb’s view, “it comes down to precautionary principle. That’s why [authorities] can kill the bear … because the bear has big teeth and long claws, he can kill people if he wanted to, so we need to kill him first. And that’s kind of how the Conservation Service responds,” she posited.
She added, “It’s not to say that there isn’t some positive response from the conservation service, it’s to say that most of their responses [across the province] are heavy-handed.”
The ministry acknowledged BC Parks “may take action by closing certain areas,” including backcountry campgrounds, in “situations where a food-conditioned bears [sic] becomes problematic and continues to revisit areas for food sources,” to provide the bear an opportunity to move on.
As of Aug. 15, Garibaldi Provincial Park’s Singing Creek and Cheakamus Lake campgrounds remain closed until further notice due to “an aggressive and food-conditioned bear has been exhibiting threatening behaviour in the Cheakamus Lake area.”
Both BC Parks and the COS encourage campers and hikers to take precautions when spending time in “bear country,” the ministry said, such as travelling in groups, carrying bear spray and securing attractants.
- With files from Stefan Labbé