The WildSafe BC program in the Elk Valley isn’t set to start for another month yet, but that doesn’t mean its community coordinator, Kathy Murray, isn’t getting prepared for another season.
The Free Press caught up with Murray to ask her about the program and what she hopes to see in the upcoming year.
Bear aware programs
Last year, Murray ran a pilot project regarding Bear in Area signs to warn residents if there was a bear in their neighbourhood. She says she was happy with the results and hopes to continue the program this year.
“I would try to strategically place the signs where they were quite visible to the people who live in that neighbourhood, but also just to passers-by,” she said.
“When I was putting the signs up, people would stop the car and start asking questions, so it was a great opportunity to explain about the bear and the reason the bear was in the area and that we attracted it here. It was interesting how that worked really well. At one stage, we had bears all over town and I ran out of signs.”
Murray says these signs provide an opportunity to talk to residents and it’s a more effective alternative than going door-to-door.
“I’m certainly going to continue with the signs because going door-to-door is an enormous task. This is more of a general area and it gets the message out to second homeowners or visitors.”
Education is part of the mandate for WildSafe, and Murray is going to continue her efforts to inform the public of the dangers of attracting bears into their neighbourhoods.
“We are going to pretty much carry on the same with education because our program is primarily public education. And as long as we have new bears and new people in town, there is a need for education,” she said.
Murray applauds residents who group together to combat the issues, such as apple pick programs. However, she says ideally, the focus would be on people who need assistance.
“I would certainly like to facilitate that and encourage people to do that but I think the big thing with that is I really hope that the efforts go to the people who really need it – to seniors or disabled people. Not just people that are just ‘oh hey, let’s get the volunteers to come and pick my apples’,” she said.
Overall, Murray is thankful for residents who continue the bear conversation with their friends and neighbours, as this helps to raise awareness.
“The bottom line is I just want to say thanks to everyone who has made an effort to clean up their backyards, manage their wildlife attractants, comply with bylaws. Just encourage your families, friends and neighbours to do the same. Together we can all make a difference. We have to get everyone on board.”
As the snow starts to melt, new wildlife can be seen venturing in areas close to Fernie. Murray suggests everyone be on the look out for a variety of animals, including bears, moose and cougars, among others.
While there are different methods for dealing with different species, a general rule for all wildlife is to never approach or feed wildlife, and if there is an alternative route to take to avoid an encounter with wildlife, use it.
“The best thing you can do, especially hiking, biking, or walking is just to make noise to warn wildlife of your presence so they know you are there. If you see wildlife, stop, back away and choose an alternative route, if you can,” she said. “Being aware – if you’re out going for a run on Stumpy’s Trail and you have the iPod, do you know what’s going on? Be on guard, carry bear spray and know how to use it.”
Bear spray can be used in defence with other species, including cougars, which are stalker animals and like to approach from behind.
“With cougars, you stop, stand your ground and remain calm, but you want to appear as a threat. You want to make yourself look large, use your voice in a loud and assertive way, back away slowly. If a cougar approaches, defend yourself with sticks or rocks, if you’ve got bear spray use it,” said Murray.
Moose are another species that can be frequently seen in the area. As bigger animals, it’s important to remember that their size can be a hindrance to them.
“Moose can be very unpredictable, and we have moose and moose calves everywhere,” said Murray. “With moose, the best thing to do is if you can, get behind a tree. Remember moose can run, they can swim, but they can’t climb trees.”
Murray says that when encountering wildlife, it’s best to stay as calm as possible.
“Behaviour breeds behaviour. If you scream and start to get agitated, it will think you’re prey.”
Communication with the public
Murray, who has operated the WildSafe BC program in the Elk Valley since 2005, welcomes conversation and dialogue regarding wildlife in the area with the public. Besides the information that is available on the WildsafeBC.com website, Murray has a Facebook page and a Twitter account for up-to-date information.
Along with the online presence, Murray also sets up information booths at community events.
“At the community events, it is amazing the number of people I talk to. I chat to all of the vendors, and then I have my stand set up and people come by and it is a good opportunity in a formal way to talk about wildlife issues.”
Murray will also come to speak to any interested parties regarding healthy wildlife habits, and has done so for groups like Scouts Canada and Island Lake Lodge.
“I certainly talk to different groups of interest,” she said. “For sure, I’m happy to do that. Even on an individual basis, if people are new, they can contact me. I’m very happy to talk to them.”