By Clare Ogilvie
Whistler is just weeks into its bear season and already three young bears are dead.
Two of the bears had to be destroyed by conservation officers for breaking into cars and homes and this week a third had to be euthanized after being hit by a car as it ran across the highway between a garbage collection site and the waste transfer station.
A few days prior to the bear being hit it was feeding at the Function Junction compactor site said Conservation Officer Chris Doyle.
“It was immobilized by our new seasonal conservation officer… and tagged and released a short distance away,” he said.
“Then just a few days later we got a call that it had been run over.”
The bears around Function have been developing some troubling habits — getting into the recycling bins or pulling material out, ransacking the recycling at the garbage transfer station at the old landfill site, and even getting onto the loaded garbage trucks and tearing at the tarps covering the garbage.
Carney’s Waste Systems is now keeping its trucks inside the fenced area at the transfer station and staff is being diligent about making sure the gates are not left open and the electric fence is turned on.
In recent weeks stakeholders in bear conservation have been looking at what might happen when the transfer station is closed permanently and moved to the new Callaghan site later this summer. The plans for that site have already been reviewed in the hope that it does not create problems for resident bears in the area.
“Pretty much all over North America, whenever a dump which has supported bears for 10 or more years has been closed, you get bears trying to find garbage in the next closest areas of human habitation…,” said Michael Allen, who has been studying black bears in and around Whistler for over 14 years.
Last month the municipality sent out a notice to residents in the Spring Creek and Function Junction areas, which are near the garbage transfer station, warning them to make sure there was nothing around their homes and businesses to attract bears.
“(The bears) seem to keep stepping it up,” said Heather Beresford Whistler’s environmental stewardship manager.
The municipality is now working with Carney’s to redesign the recycling bins, is monitoring electric fences around the garbage station more closely, and parking all garbage trucks inside the fence, she said.
Said Doyle: “You go around the landfill site or the Function (compactor and recycling) site and it is quite common to see bear scat with plastics in it or mostly consisting of plastic bags, and that kind of thing can kill a bear as well.
“It is very difficult to change (bear behaviour) and it will be interesting to see what happens when the landfill is completely gone. We suspect there will be some more conflict at the Function Junction area as well as at the construction site of the athletes’ village.
“There are still issues with garbage and as long as bears are able to access garbage there is going to be conflict.”
There are several factors affecting bear behaviour in the Whistler valley right now said Allen.
In the village, some yearlings are being forced down off the mountains because of competition with lots of other older bears who are scrapping over smaller grazing areas this year due to the substantial alpine snowpack, Olympic-related construction, and activity in the mountain bike park.
“The bears are going to have a bit of a tense time this year with less spring feeding areas, the snowpack, the berries, and more (bear) families, so there are a lot of ripples of stress working through the population,” said Allen, adding that it’s also a bumper year for cubs and moms thanks to abundant natural food in 2005 and 2006.
Right now there are 12 families living on the mountains’ greens spaces. The dominant females, like long time resident Jeanie, and her cubs have the best spots, while younger females stay further down the mountainsides. Some are in the bike park.
It’s not unusual to have bears in the bike park in May and June, said Allen. But he is hoping that bikers use caution; more young bears than usual are hanging out there.
Allen would also like to see local garbage containers in neighbourhoods emptied more frequently so that rummaging bears find little to sustain them.
“Bears have learned how to open them, they have learned how to knock them over, and even drag them away a little bit, bend the frames, and pop open the lids,” said Allen.
“Some bears have even learned to open the latch, so now they are not bear proof.
“Every three days I see garbage strewn out at bus stops and that is not a good sign, that means bears are still getting in.
“When we change the availability of garbage bears change their strategy to get it.
“Bears are getting smarter and they are formulating new strategies to get to garbage and that may lead to breaking into houses.”
At the root of Whistler’s problem is the young male who heads to the valley to find food rather than face dominant males and females on the mountains. If they find human food, whether it is garbage, bird food, or recycling containers, they will stick around.
“They find the human food element and the bird feeders and they realize that this is making them fatter than natural food so they are willing to tolerate people to get that,” said Allen.
“That makes them stronger, faster, and bigger and able to compete with bigger bears at an earlier age, and more successfully. That is their strategy.
“The longer a sub-adult spends in the Whistler valley the greater the odds are that he is going to get conditioned to human food, and that is kind of how it has been for the last 14 years that I have seen.”
Allen, Doyle and Beresford are urging people to be especially vigilant this year when it comes to leaving anything around that might attract bears.
Feeding bears is also illegal.
Last year nine bears were killed in Whistler – all were males. It’s believed another 5 males died of natural causes.
There are at least 81 resident bears in Whistler, which include 19 adult females and 20 cubs.