City Council debates bear attractant issue

The issue of bears was a hotly debated topic among City of Fernie councillors at the Apr. 11 Committee of the Whole meeting.

The issue of bears was a hotly debated topic among City of Fernie councillors at the Apr. 11 Committee of the Whole meeting.

The gallery was empty with the exception of staff and media while councillors debated the topic of bears venturing into city limits and how it can be curbed. Currently, the City of Fernie’s waste management bylaw permits garbage to be left in plastic bags on the curbside for pick up. Council has directed staff to amend the bylaw to prohibit plastic bags and mandate that garbage be placed in a container for garbage pick up. Mayor Mary Giuliano cites this as a cost effective way to help with the issue of garbage, as it will deter crows and other animals from getting into the plastic bags and scattering garbage around neighbourhoods.

“Let’s make a decision on the plastic bags, that is something that will make a difference immediately. I think that this is something we could start with,” she said at the meeting. “It’s not a huge expense for anybody to buy a garbage can. It doesn’t have to be bear proof, it just has to be hard and not a plastic bag.”

Councillors debated whether more should be done to address the problem of bears in the area, as it has been an issue in past years. Last fall, due to a lack of berry crop and hot weather, bears began venturing into town looking for food sources, resulting in 20 bears being destroyed in the Fernie area.

The debate circled around garbage disposal within city limits, as it is a major bear attractant. Councillors suggested alternative methods to handle garbage disposal, such as promoting the use of bear proof bins for residences, having large bear proof containers in different neighbourhoods that residents could take their garbage to, and eliminating curbside pick up. As each alternative was brought forward, the benefits were met with their potential negative impacts.

It is estimated that providing bear proof containers to all residences in Fernie would cost over $200,000 and is not something the City has budgeted for at this point. Councillor Ange Qualizza suggested providing a portion of the bins at a lower cost to people who were interested in using them. She suggested buying 300 bins and offering them on a first come-first serve basis to the public at a lower price – the City would be responsible for 60 per cent of the cost while residents would pay 40 per cent. This would introduce residents to bear proof garbage containers in the area.

“If the people in our community that were motivated, could buy a bear proof container for 40 per cent, it wouldn’t cost us the full amount,” she said. “You trickle it out into the community in really small steps where it is affordable for us, you make it affordable for the first wave of people who want to buy in and perhaps in three years, everyone in our community has one. And it’s not a step up.”

“I think there is an appetite in our community for us to address this,” she later added.

Councillor Jon Levesque asked his fellow councillors if there was the “political will” to take more radical measures.

“I would be 100 per cent okay if we obliterated curbside pick up all together. No garbage cans in the neighbourhood and you just haul your garbage yourself to the transfer station. Now I get that is a bit extreme and what about the seniors. I’m just wondering if we have the will here, how about we just figure out a couple of comparable communities and be done with this conversation. Is that possible?” he asked.

Giuliano said she would not support any action to eliminate curbside pick up, and says there are other attractants within city limits other than just garbage, meaning that eliminating curbside pick up does not mean bears will not venture into city limits.

“I am not in favour of removing curbside. That is a service that I think the City of Fernie residents appreciate and I’m not about to support anything like that,” she said.

Councillor Dan McSkimming advocated for creating groundwork to follow and increasing enforcement around curbside pick up.

“We have to create a set of ground rules where you have to have a can, it’s got to be able to snap shut, it’s out front of your place in the morning, not the night before and then comes enforcement,” said McSkimming. “Then we have to be walking around saying, ‘you can’t keep that out here, here’s your tickets’.”

To this, Councillor Levesque said enforcement has not been as effective as intended.

“The solution, if I may submit, isn’t about creating more rules for bylaw enforcement to enforce when we have an enforcement problem right now,” he said. “We have to come up with a strategy that doesn’t put more pressure on capacity issues that seem to already exist and not reinvent the wheel. And I just want to know how to do that. Maybe it’s just for me to gauge the temperature of my fellow councillors – do we have the political will to see this happen and if we don’t, let’s just admit it and just keep fighting the fight every few years and leave it to the next council. Because that seems to be where we are going and we are two years into this. I don’t feel that we have made a lot of progress.”

At this point, City staff is working to amend the waste management bylaw to prohibit plastic bags from curbside pick up and are encouraging everyone to use a proper garbage can. The bylaw will be brought back to a future council meeting for readings and voting.

The Free Press will release a series of articles over the coming weeks focused on different aspects of the issue of bears in municipalities, including attractant management, education and outreach and bear management.