Education and outreach is priority for many municipalities living in bear country.

Bear conflict management: education and outreach

The second is a series of articles dedicated to bear conflict management focuses on education and outreach in different municipalities.

In a series of articles regarding bear management, The Free Press spoke to representatives from a variety of municipalities, all of which also face the issue of bears, including Whistler, Canmore, Castlegar and Golden. No municipality is the same, therefore there is no cookie cutter blueprint to mitigate wildlife within town or city limits. However, education and outreach was a priority for all of the municipalities, and was often cited as the first step in bear management.

Whistler

Whistler is a municipality in the heart of bear country. With a core population of over 9,800, the area receives over two million visitors in a calendar year.  The town is one of only five Bear Smart Communities within B.C. Its goal is to address the root causes of bear and human conflict. Communities must meet a list of criteria to be recognized as Bear Smart.

“It is an ongoing challenge. We are one of just five Bear Smart Communities in the entire province. I can pat myself on the back because we have done a relatively good job at reducing the number of bear human conflicts. Obviously the number of bears [not] being euthanized is a result,” said Whistler’s Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

The town has six bylaw officers and a part time Bear Smart Program assistant for the summer months. The city does its best to educate the public, both residents and tourists, about bears through many communication streams.

“We’ve got good bylaws with respect to waste disposal and bear attractants and so on. We enforce those on a complaint basis. We are constantly posting things on our website and signs and so on if there are bears in the area and to be smart about disposal of bear attractants,” she said. “We have a part time Bear Smart program assistant from May until December every year and that person assists with educating people.”

It’s about constant reinforcement, according to Wilhelm-Morden. Despite hosting numerous visitors and tourists, she finds that it is the locals who cause the majority of problems rather than the visitors.

“The message, the same message or similar messages are going out all the time because we get more than two million people here on an annual basis. But interestingly enough, most of our problems with bear human conflict are with locals, with long term residents or transient seasonal workers – not disposing of garbage properly, storing it in the front hall of their house without locking their doors or keeping it in their cars. We do see tourists stopping on the side of the road to get out and watch bears grazing and we see them gathering around in the fall when the bears are on a mission to bulk up. If they are here in the village you can see a whole group of tourists standing at too close of a distance watching them. We do have those challenges but far and away, most of our issues are with residents.”

Whistler encourages residents to report a bear immediately if seen within the town limits.

“We sent out the message that a bear that is habituated to humans is a dead bear. What we encourage people to do as well is if they see a bear in a place where it shouldn’t be, so in your backyard or wherever, to immediately call both our bylaw and/or our conservation office with the idea that steps will be taken immediately to get that bear hazed and out of the area,” she said. “You see it in the backyard and you think it’s not harming anybody but it is the first step in the bear becoming habituated and so we’ve really been trying to get that message out to people. People have been reluctant to call because they think they will just come over here and kill it. That is not what they will do. They will come over and try and haze it out of the area.”

Castlegar

Just this week, Castlegar has implemented wildlife resistant garbage containers in aims to reduce wildlife conflict. The City of Castlegar has supported WildSafeBC, formerly Bear Aware, since 1999.

Castlegar promotes their message through presentations, public displays, workshops door-to-door visits, press releases and by working with its community partners like the West Kootenay Human-bear Conflict Working Group.

“Our motto of ‘keeping wildlife wild and communities safe’ reflects the need to manage attractants responsibly in order to prevent the cycle of food conditioning that leads to human-wildlife conflict,” said Castlegar’s WildSafe BC Community Coordinator, Jenny Wallace.

According to Wallace, the WildSafe BC program has been effective across the province, including the West Kootenay region.

“Since the formation of the Bear Aware/WildSafeBC program, the number of bears destroyed due to conflict in the province has dramatically decreased from an average of 1000 bears a year prior to the program to 500-600 today,” she said.

Wallace believes education is an important piece of the solution. However, she says sometimes it needs to be complemented with bylaws and enforcement to get a portion of people to comply.

“Education can go a long way towards changing behaviour and reducing human-wildlife conflict, but in rare cases, the only way to get some people to secure their garbage and other attractants is to make it illegal and expensive not to,” she said. “Wildlife attractant bylaws are an effective tool for dealing with chronic cases of accessible wildlife attractants.”

Castlegar’s Bylaw 1198, focused on the regulation of refuse and other wildlife attractants, starts its fines at $50 for refuse that is accessible to wildlife, and goes up to $200 for antifreeze or paint that is accessible to wildlife. These fines can be totaled up to but may not exceed the $2,000 limit.

Canmore

Canmore, Alta., is in very close proximity to Banff National Park, which is a benefit when it comes to bear management and education. The town is able to utilize the resources and information that Banff has available to maintain and continue their wildlife education goals.

According to Canmore’s Supervisor of Communications, Adam Robertson, the municipality supports an education-first policy when it comes to bylaw enforcement and wildlife management.

“Our bylaw officers also like to work on education over enforcement and have a number of positive programs in place that cover a variety of issues and have four full time bylaw officers on staff,” he said. “Educating people on safe practices while both in town and in the backcountry, increasing awareness of what animal attractants are and how each person can play their role in creating positive human-wildlife interactions.”

Canmore works with groups like Bear Aware and Bow Valley’s WildSmart to help spread education and communication regarding bears throughout the area.

“[WildSmart does] a lot of communication around living with wildlife and in particular bears and dealing with wildlife attractants,” said Robertson.

The town of Canmore does a bi-yearly Community Monitoring Report that is freely available online. Within the report is a section titled Human/Wildlife Conflict.  While the section deals with more than just bears, it shows the yearly conflict numbers. These yearly statistics are easily available and help to inform the community on topics like, bear – human conflict as well as death and management removals. At the end of the section, there is an interpretation of the information, where the town draws conclusions based on the previous information.

Lori Rissling Wynn is a coordinator of the Canmore Bear Aware Program and echoes Robertson’s sentiments about education over enforcement. “This is probably similar for Fernie as well, we try to do the education, understanding and communication piece first before we put a bylaw out there saying we are going to charge you,” she said. “That’s why the preventative piece is just as important and maybe even more important than the ability to respond.”

The general consensus among the municipalities interviewed is education is prioritized before enforcement. The mayor of Golden, Ron Oszust summed up education and outreach as “the single most effective way to coexist, from my perspective, is education and information sharing.”

Fernie WildSafe BC Community Coordinator, Kathy Murray, says communication is the one of the most important pieces of her program.

“It starts with the education process,” she said.

Murray covers the Elk Valley, from Elkford to South Country and uses a variety of communication methods to keep the public informed.

“Whether I’m doing a school presentation or putting up bear in the area signs, talking with passers-by or radio interviews, paper interviews, City Council, my goal is to keep the conversation around human wildlife conflict at the forefront of people’s minds,” she said. “When that conversation takes on a life of its own, like in homes, in cafés, on social media, at city hall meetings, that is when you see real behavioural change. And we are seeing that happen.”

According to Murray, last year was the first year that Bear in the Area signs were used and it was a successful pilot because it got people talking to each other and her. She also believes that it is effective for Fernie because it blankets an area and can reach second homeowners and visitors – groups who are often missed when going door-to-door.

“I think at the end of the day, its about people talking and neighbours working together. I think it’s all how you address it,” she said. “Take the time and go and explain to them. Most people care about bears and some people don’t. But everybody cares about personal safety.”

Next week, the series will continue with an article focused on bear management methods in other municipalities, including hazing, relocation and euthanization.