Conservation officers found themselves hard at work alongside highway police this past weekend as they dealt with a rash of bear deaths that has already eclipsed last year's total.
As many as four bear deaths were reported on the Sea to Sky Highway this past weekend, although B.C.'s Conservation Officer Service can only be certain of three of them.
Conservation Officer Chris Doyle said there were three accidents in total, all of them between Brandywine Park and Function Junction. The first happened on Thursday. The Conservation Officer Service never saw the dead bear but they got a report that one was dead on the side of the road, likely from a motor vehicle accident.
The Whistler RCMP were also forced to kill a bear after members of the public got too close while trying to take photographs. That incident happened at 5 p.m. on Friday afternoon as the RCMP were manning a road safety check at Function Junction. A driver that came through told police that vehicles were pulled off the side of the road about two kilometres to the south to observe a bear grazing in a roadside ditch, and that a female was getting extremely close to take photographs.
The RCMP attended the scene and some of the vehicles pulled away in response, but a dog belonging to a male driver who was taking photographs outside of his pickup truck jumped out the vehicle window and ran towards the bear. The bear attacked the dog causing injuries and would not back down even after warning shots were fired by police. Given the fact that the dog's owner was in close proximity the RCMP made the decision to kill the bear. The dog's owner was allowed to take the dog to WAG for treatment after providing personal information to officers, but there is no update as to the extent of its injuries. The male is being charged with having a dog off a leash. Further charges for endangering wildlife are also being considered in coordination with the conservation office.
"I can tell you that this upset the police officers, I was upset by it," said Sergeant Shawn LeMay of the Whistler RCMP. "We called Mountain FM immediately to make a plea to the public to leave our bears alone. This is one of the worst things that we are called on to do, and this didn't have to happen."
The RCMP met with Sylvia Dolson of the Get Bear Smart Society after the incident and are also looking to add highway signs in cooperation with the Ministry of Transportation to advise people of wildlife and create no-stopping zones.
The final incident happened on Saturday. A bear was struck and killed near Brandywine and found dead on the side of the road. Doyle said the Conservation Officer Service took the dead bear's carcass and dropped it in the wild where it could be picked at by scavengers.
Doyle couldn't be certain of why the accidents happened, but he said the encounters with bears might have come from the fact that Whistler's ursine neighbours are currently seeking food on the valley floor.
"Bears are at lower elevations at this time of year because that's where the more abundant food sources are," he said. "With all the abundant snow up high, they're going to be at the valley bottom. Bears will cross the road to access various food sources, potentially not knowing all the details of the accidents.
"Likely the bear was crossing the road and persons didn't have time to stop before striking the bear."
Doyle went on to say a source of conflict with bears on the highway is the fact that so many people stop to observe and photograph them grazing on roadside vegetation. He said the practice has the effect of civilizing the bear because it becomes comfortable around people.
"We're asking people not to stop, take pictures and approach the bear," he said. "We've also had people report to us that they've been involved in accidents with people pulling over to look at bears.
"Also you're habituating the bear to people. There's potential that people may approach the bear. We don't want that bear getting comfortable around people."
Beyond the highway, there were incidents with wildlife in D'Arcy, north of Pemberton. Doyle said one or more cougars has been observed attacking some livestock including a miniature horse, goats and sheep. He said he's not sure whether a cougar is doing all the attacking but one has been observed in the area and the officer service has brought in tracking dogs to help them find it.
If it's not a cougar then it could also be a predator such as a wolf, black bear, coyote or grizzly bear.
"All those animals can prey on livestock," he said.
Down south in the Squamish Valley, Doyle said a black bear was seen killing two sheep on Monday. It was killed while feeding on a sheep.