Driver inattention and speed, coupled with a booming bear population throughout the Sea to Sky corridor has led to the death of four bears in one week.
While it isn’t uncommon for bears to be hit by cars along Highway 99, local conservation officials say last week’s numbers were high.
Sylvia Dolson, executive director of Whistler’s Get Bear Smart Society, said two vehicle-related bear deaths in one week is considered high — four in one week is very unusual.
Chris Doyle, a local conservation officer, said while they typically see a spike in these types of accidents during the month of August, on an average year, they only see a total of six to 10 bears killed by vehicles.
Dolson said the accidents are more prevalent along certain sections of the highway, with many occurring between Whistler and Pemberton and in areas that people tend to speed along.
Two of last week’s accidents occurred on Highway 99 near the Pemberton motocross track.
Conservation officers often receive calls that a bear has been hit, but are only given a vague location, which can make it difficult or impossible to find the injured animal.
Other times, people fail the report the accidents altogether, and the bear is left at the side of the road. Dolson said this was the case with at least one of the bears last week.
One of the society’s research bears, Komor, was hit at Mon’s Crossing. The driver didn’t report the accident or stop, but other people stayed on the scene to show conservation officers where the injured animal was.
Doyle said people are legally obligated to report these accidents, and should stay on the scene until RCMP or conservation officers arrive. But he cautions people to remain in their vehicles and not to approach an injured animal in case it feels threatened.
After they locate a bear that has been hit, conservation officers then face the difficult decision of whether they need to destroy the animal. Doyle said officers have to use their best judgment to determine if the bear could recover from their injuries.
Usually, if the bear is able to walk away from the scene, they will let it go to try and recover on its own. Otherwise, it will be destroyed.
Doyle isn’t sure why so many bears were hit last week, but suggested the high rates may be partially attributable to an overall increase in the presence of bears in the valley.
Dolson said drivers need to be more alert, especially when bears are so active in the area.
“With increased use of cell phones while you’re driving, and all of these things, people aren’t concentrating on driving anymore… people need to be more aware; there’s all kinds of wildlife crossing the highways.”
Doyle agrees, and says drivers need to slow down.
“Speed is ultimately what’s going to lead to a higher incidence of any wild life being hit.”
Dolson said the Get Bear Smart Society has been trying to have signs installed along the highway to warn commuters about the presence of wildlife in the area. But it hasn’t been a simple task.
“There are some really strange rules from the Ministry of Transportation about putting up those signs,” said Dolson.
She said a certain number of animals have to be killed at a specific location and reported to the ministry before a sign will be erected.
Dolson said the society will be asking the local council to write a letter to the provincial government to support their request for signage, and hopes they will be put up along sections of Highway 99 by next spring.