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Sow and cubs relocated from Whistler's Bayshores only to return days later

Whistler bear advocates say relocation not effective strategy for family units
Black bears (not the same family as pictured above) returned to Whistler's Bayshores neighbourhood shortly after being relocated last month. GETTY IMAGES

A sow and three bear cubs were relocated out of Bayshores last month only to return within days, leading to questions from Whistler bear advocates about the efficacy of relocation.

After weeks of reports of bluff-charging and other defensive behaviour in Spring Creek and Bayshores, the Conservation Officer Service (COS) relocated the family unit a short distance to "a habitat that was more comfortable and a habitat that was discussed with a [provincial] biologist as a good location for the sow to help get those cubs a bit bigger and put her outside of a high-use area," explained officer Brittany Mueller. Initially, there were reports in early May of the sow accessing barbecues, which led COs to patrol the neighbourhoods to ensure no attractants were left behind, and issue a fine. Mueller said the sow also had several negative interactions with off-leash dogs, prompting Whistler bylaw to erect signage, educate residents in the area and the RMOW to issue a wildlife alert.

But after exhausting other options, Mueller said the COS made the decision to relocate.

"In this situation, we had done everything from Valley Trail closures to signage to wildlife alerts to enforcement, and just with where the sow and cubs were located at the time, and that she had bluff-charged two people, at that point, the decision was made to relocate her to an area just to give her a bit of time to decompress from all the public pressure in the high-use area," she said, adding that COs expected the family to return to their home range, but not as quickly as they did.

"Basically, she was being surrounded by people every day and the community wasn't giving her the space and the respect that she needed."

Sylvia Dolson, the former director of the Whistler Get Bear Smart Society, questioned the decision to relocate the bears after she said the science has been clear it can put undue stress on a sow with cubs.

"Relocating a mother and her cubs will not work. A mother, as has happened, will always come back home," she explained. "She's made a life for her cubs there, she knows where to find food, how to stay safe there. She will not stay in the area wherever they drop her off, and if she has to cross highways to get back, that's going to cause problems. The drug in the system of all four of them is also going to cause problems."

Relocation also poses a risk of capture myopathy—muscle damage caused by extreme struggle or stress—that can lead to death in approximately two per cent of animals, according to a 2008 study by the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre.

"Moving them like furniture usually doesn't bode well for living animals," said Ellie Lamb, Get Bear Smart's appointee to the Whistler Bear Advisory Committee. "It can be effective for adolescent bears, at times it's been quite effective. So younger, more perhaps adaptable bears, but not so much for the families."

But relocation would be "no more stress than what's caused by people surrounding her, dogs chasing her, and being in a highly confined area," argued Mueller. "Relocation is stressful on any animal, but with the stress of where she was located, we were hopeful moving her would take some of that stress off."

Lamb feels the COS needs to update its management tactics based on the current science.

"My opinion is that the COS needs to learn about the behaviour and communication of bears and to understand them, and I don't believe that at this point the COS has a keen understanding of bears," she said. "There's more information in now on these animals and how complex they are, but also how simple they are for us to coexist with. This information is what the COS needs to become familiar with and start to conduct their actions around the information as it is today, not the information that was 20 years ago."

Ultimately, keeping bears safe is going to take a collective community effort, Lamb urged.

"I think we need to have the outreach going around and keeping them abreast of what's going on with those bears, but also keeping in mind that bears are very peaceful," she said. "It forever surprises me how adaptable and how considerate these animals really are to human presence."

For more information on bear-smart practices, visit