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Bears target shoppers for food

Conservation officers forced to shoot two black bears in response to aggressive behaviour



Two black bears were shot dead by conservation officers in Whistler after significant run-ins with people, including an incident where a man had a loaf of bread taken out of his hands by a bear as he waited in the dark for a bus.

The incident occurred in Function Junction on Monday, Oct. 15.

Michael Bruno, who works at RTOWN Communications, said he had seen a bear earlier in the evening in the area, and later walked to the bus shelter at Alpha Lake Road and Millar Creek Road where he encountered another man carrying groceries and wearing reflective safety gear at 8:30 p.m.

"He's (the man) got a smirk on his face, and he says 'I guess the bear's not happy tonight.' I asked him what he meant and he said a bear just walked up and snatched a loaf of bread out of his hand and ran off into the bushes," said Bruno.

While the two spoke at the bus stop they heard more noise and realized the bear was still in the area. There were no street lights and they couldn't see well.

Their bus arrived at that point, and they asked the driver to turn on the side light, where they saw a large bear eating garbage near the bus shelter's garbage can, a few feet from where they were standing.

Bruno said it was pitch black in the area and doesn't know why the lights on the bus shelter were not on.

"I made a comment (to the man with the bread) on how unsafe it is when you're walking from work and you can't see 10 feet in front of you — and there's a bear right in front of the bus shelter eating garbage but you can't see it. He said the same thing. He didn't see anything either, just came around the corner and suddenly he heard a bear growl at him. His eyes adjusted, and there's a bear standing right in front of him," said Bruno. The bear took one loaf, but the man had other groceries that the bear may have come back for.

Later in the week, on Oct. 18, an aggressive adult female black bear was shot at the waste transfer station in Function Junction, though it is not known if this was the same animal in Monday's incident, but the bear had broken into a building and several cars in her search for food.

Conservation Officer Simon Gravel said the bear was a repeat offender they've dealt with before, but her behavior had grown worse. She was killed at the Function Junction garbage and recycling transfer station just after 10 p.m. following four hours of confrontation.

"The level of conflict had escalated very quickly with the home invasion, and maybe a dozen cars were broken into. She would just lean into the windows and break them. Sometimes she got some food, sometimes not," he said.

"After four cars were broken into on Thursday, people were trying to chase the bear away but it was responding to that and chasing back, charging them."

The public safety concern brought out the Conservation Officer Service and the RCMP. "They both responded and killed the bear," Gravel said.

"We have a high level of tolerance for black bears in Whistler, but when it becomes a public safety concern we remove the bear."

Gravel said the same bear had similar conflicts in the Function Junction area in the fall of 2011, but at the time she had cubs and they relocated her instead. She made her way back to the area, he added.

At the other end of Whistler, a second black bear was destroyed by the conservation service on Tuesday, Oct. 16 after it charged people carrying groceries, said Conservation Officer Chris Doyle.

The incidents took place along the Valley Trail between Nesters Market and the Village. That bear had been relocated on three previous occasions.

"It was recently approaching people and charging at people and running at people, and it appeared to be targeting people that were carrying groceries. Then, of course, people would run or drop the groceries and the bear would get a food reward. That behaviour was repeating itself," Doyle said.

Bears are smart enough to understand that where they find people, they'll find food, Doyle said.

Said Gravel: "Bears are willing to take more risk at this time of year, so it's even more important for the public to secure every source of food."

He added that people should not leave food in their vehicles. Bears can smell food even if the windows are rolled up, and once they know how to break windows they will do it whether they smell food or not.

"When they learn the trick of how to break in, they will do it again and again," he said. "They have been lucky in cars before so they will investigate the car, even if there's no food. Bears are very strong and it's easy for them."

This brings to a total of four bears killed this year in Whistler, which is a low number compared to recent years.

Black bears try to consume up to 20,000 calories a day this time of year in preparation for winter hibernation. Areas with human habitation become a great place to search for food.

Whistler bear researcher Michael Allen said ursine food availability in the alpine areas was better in 2012 than in the previous two years, though it wasn't optimal.

As a result of this, and of around 25 deaths of bears hit by cars and another 25 bears shot as "problem bears", over the last couple of years there were fewer bears in the region. "The population got knocked in half," Allen said. Over the 2010-2011 famine period, cubs were even being eaten by adult male bears — something he hadn't observed before.

Allen said that as a result, Whistler's bear population was now at a low point in its cycle, with around 40 to 50 in the region, down from 100.

"And we've come out of 2010 and 2011 as the worst berry years in the 19 years I've been here. I was hoping we wouldn't get three in a row. This year was better than last year... we had a warm, early spring that knocked down the snow pack, but then it fell back into a dark, cold, rainy June when berries get pollinated. Then we went into a hot August and September," he said. "It helped but then you get into September and you started to see the plants stressing out, berries shrivelling in the forest."

Allen said the surviving bears "have got it made" as there is less competition for food. He expected up to 20 newborn cubs in the spring, with many more pregnant females than this time last year.

To report problem bears please call the RAPP line: 1-877-952-7277.

— With files by Andrew Mitchell and John French.