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Bear Smart plant removals concern landscapers

Landscapers and environmental experts in Whistler are alarmed at a strategy by the Get Bear Smart Society that they believe could ban trees and plants that create conflict with bears.

Landscapers and environmental experts in Whistler are alarmed at a strategy by the Get Bear Smart Society that they believe could ban trees and plants that create conflict with bears.

In a letter sent to Whistler council, a group of landscape architects calls the society's efforts a "threat to biodiversity" in the Whistler Valley. They write that the Bear Smart Group and the BEAR Working Group are carrying out an initiative to ban plants native to Whistler in what they call an "admirable but misguided attempt to reduce bear-human conflicts."

"We believe that the banning of Whistler's native shrubs, groundcovers and grasses, as currently proposed by the BEAR SMART Group and The BEAR Working Group will undermine environmental sustainability goals for all animal and plant species, with limited scientific or practical effect of reducing bear-human conflicts," they write.

Sylvia Dolson of the Get Bear Smart Society said in an interview last week that she's working with various businesses and strata councils to ensure compliance with a municipal bylaw that focuses on bear attractants near businesses and homes. Her work with businesses and stratas has involved the removal of "bear attractive landscaping," namely trees, bushes and fruit that can attract bears and thereby create conflict.

One action of this strategy has included the removal of mountain ash trees, which bear berries that ripen in the fall. Dolson worries that bears are attracted to properties that have such trees nearby and she's thus working to remove them and keep black bears away from high conflict areas.

"It's not that we're worried that bears are eating natural foods," she said in an interview last week. "But once they're drawn to the property they often cause property damage, looking for garbage, bird feeders, even entering homes with open doors and windows."

The practice has nevertheless proven a sticking point with signatories to the letter, who claim they are aware that Whistler is "bear country" but feel that banning native plants could "undermine environmental sustainability goals" for animal and plant species and threaten biodiversity.

One of the signatories, landscape architect Crosland Doak of Brent Murdoch and Associates, said in an interview that the bans the Bear Smart Group is proposing go too far.

"The relocation of feeding materials... is great," Doak said. "But they have some blanket bans on 90 per cent of our indigenous species and that's a bigger threat."

Doak went on to say that there are plenty of ways to reduce human-bear conflict but that banning a hefty majority of Whistler's native plant species simply isn't the way to do it.

"When you eliminate species that are native, you're eliminating a system that supports insects, mammals and other wintering birds," he said. "You have to take a balanced approach to biodiversity."

Doak's concerns find some agreement with Dave Williamson, principal of Cascade Environmental Resource Group and another signatory to the letter. He doesn't consider mountain ash trees a bear attractant and said there's a problem with the definition of "attractant" in the Whistler area.

"When I think of bear attractant, I think of something artificial that man has introduced," he said. "It's a negative term, it's going to adversely modify their behaviour, that's how I define a bear attractant."

Speaking specifically about mountain ash trees, he said they're part of the natural habitat - as are other fruits considered attractants in the community.

"Is thimbleberry a bear attractant? Is blueberry? It's part of their natural food supply," he said.

Pique could not obtain the names of species proposed for banning by press time, nor could it contact officials from Bear Smart for a response.