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Citizen group aims to make noise for Whistler bears

Can COS procedures be improved?



Judging by the online reaction to the news that three Whistler bears — a 10-year-old sow and her two cubs — were killed last week as a result of human conflict, Whistlerites care deeply for the bears of the valley.

When resident Ranya Dube posted Pique's story on the incident to the Whistler Summer Facebook group, she was encouraged to see so many people sharing her concern about how the situation was handled.

"It's really nice to also see so many people voicing it," Dube said. "I'm like, 'finally — I thought I was the only frustrated person.'"

Now Dube is hoping to turn that reaction into action, through a citizen-led initiative she's calling the Whistler Wildlife Protection Group.

The group will allow residents to share ideas, concerns and solutions around protecting Whistler's wildlife, Dube said.

"Whether it's the (Resort Municipality of Whistler) needing to do more, whether it's hotels informing guests when they arrive that if they litter there are high fines, something has to be done," she said.

"The community is going to have to push and be a pain in people's backsides to get it done, but I'm OK with that."

The group can be found online at The first meeting will take place either Tuesday or Wednesday evening (Aug. 30 or 31) — check the Facebook group for confirmation.

The bear — known to local researchers as Michele — was killed after allegedly "swatting" at a bike rider near the PassivHaus on the Lost Lake trails. The incident was reported by someone else who witnessed it.

"It turned out that the witness was credible and that the information was sufficient," said Simon Gravel of the Conservation Officer Service (COS), who was away at the time of the incident.

"It was not this unique event (that led to the death of the bears), but the accumulation of multiple events."

COS said it responded to 13 calls involving the bear family over the past two months — many involving aggressive behaviour like bluff charging and encounters with off-leash dogs.

"Each time we took a different approach," Gravel said, noting that COS officers provided education, put up signage in the area, patrolled on foot and monitored the situation.

The trails weren't closed because the bear was moving around and reports were scattered throughout the area, making the logistics of closing off the area implausible, Gravel said (the RMOW takes direction from COS on such matters, a spokesperson said in an email).

Even before the swatting report, COS officers were keeping a close eye on the increasingly aggressive nature of the bear, Gravel said.

"We were very concerned about that behaviour, and we were starting to think that it would lead to a human being injured, and we didn't want that at all," he said.

"So we immediately responded to this other report, and then the decision was taken to remove the bear."

One of the cubs died after being tranquilized and falling from a tree; the second was euthanized at the recommendation of a COS biologist.

Whistler COS does have a "catch blanket" to catch falling bears, but Gravel couldn't say if the attending officer had it with him at the time.

Gravel said he understands peoples' concerns around the killing of wildlife.

"The COS is always challenged with very difficult decisions, but we take those decisions very seriously, and at the end of the day we want the best for the wildlife and for people," he said.

"So we're working hard daily these days to keep this fragile balance between conservation and public safety."

But there are some who feel that COS procedures can be improved.

Michael Howie, spokesperson for the Association for the Protection of Fur-bearing Animals — a national non-profit dedicated to helping communities find solutions to co-exist with wildlife — said the COS guidelines give officers too much discretion.

"If you pick a first responder — whether it's fire, ambulance, police — you can see exactly what they are supposed to do in virtually every circumstance, somewhere on paper, and there is a very clear call log that you can review, there are very clear oversights and review processes," Howie said.

"Whereas the COS... there is this large amount of discretion under very broad policy and vague policy with very little in terms of review."

If the public wants to see change, it will likely have to make some noise, he said.

"You look at the evolution of policy with a lot of these other places, and it comes as a result of the public saying, or an advocacy group saying, 'that's not good enough,' and I think we're finally at that part, where the COS is saying 'we can do better,' and they are willing now to talk about it," he said.

"Unfortunately, until we get to that final stage of implementing change, it's really up to the public to take action to prevent lethal action."

Wayne Goodey, an animal behaviour expert with the University of British Columbia, offered a similar thought.

"Unless procedures are really clear and the chain of command and all that is clearly laid out, there's going to be problems, and one of the things I think is problematic with this (COS procedure manual) document is that, although there are all these supposed hard rules... one of the things that's right up front is that officer discretion does not get superseded by policy," Goodey said.

The concerns around officer discretion extend to cubs, and deciding which ones get a chance at a rehab centre, Goodey said.

"How can you determine by looking at an animal from 50 metres away whether its behaviour can be changed in the future?" he said. "Putting it in a line of policy makes it sound like they're confident that they can do that, and I don't know how they can be confident."

By his own admission, Goodey is not a bear expert, "but I am an expert on animal behaviour and what you can get from observation of animals, and even with expert opinion, I still can't be sure when I make observations that I'm making the right interpretation."

Howie said there still isn't a lot of science around habituation and rehabilitation, and that you have to look at bear behaviour through a "multi-phase" lens.

"It's, 'Why did they choose to go here? What options were available to them? How can we change those options?'" he said.

"Then you have to say, 'Has this cub of the year truly learned that this is a food source, or is it simply following momma around? When left to its own devices, will he go for berries and fish or will he come back to a dumpster?

"We don't know for certain yet, but we do know hazing works and that all of these other environmental factors play into it."

The RMOW said it supports proactive, non-lethal methods to manage wildlife.

"We continue to encourage residents and visitors to call the COS at 1-877-952-RAPP (7277) when they encounter bears in residential and park areas so that the COS can employ hazing methods to reinforce a bear's natural wariness of humans and to move them from areas of potential conflict," a spokesperson said.

"We know bears who lose their fear of humans are far more likely to be involved in a conflict that results in the destruction of the bear."