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Crowding out bears

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (July 05/04) - Crowds of curious humans often lead to the deaths of black bears that wander into communities.

So says Berny Bergman, the enforcement compliance specialist with Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development in Fort Smith.

Bergman explains curiosity-seekers are the biggest complication to deterring or live-trapping a black bear. "They're one of the most dangerous variables that can enter a situation."

For example, Bergman says, if a bear has climbed a tree, the goal is to tranquilize, live trap or scare it away. "But none of these things can happen with the crowds."

The more people, the more likely the bear will have to be destroyed, Bergman says. "They're condemning the bear to death."

His advice to people is to stay away when a bear has been spotted in a community.

Because bears are unpredictable, wildlife officers take no chances when people are around, he says. "We always put human safety right up top."

Risky business

Sholto Douglas, an RWED officer in Fort Smith, says if there are too many people around, there are too many kills. "And (people) wonder why you have to pull the trigger."

He offers an example of the dangers in dealing with bears.

Douglas recalls that, a half-dozen years ago, a tranquilized mother black bear started to wake up after being injected, and put officers at risk. It is believed the dart only partially injected or fell out of the animal.

Luckily, there were no curiosity seekers around, and the bear was injected again.

However, Douglas says, if onlookers had been around, the outcome of the incident could have been "much, much different" and the bear would likely have been destroyed.

"It can be a really risky business," he says.

The drug used to tranquilize a bear is highly toxic, and could be fatal to a human without immediate treatment, says Douglas.

Wildlife officers don't feel good about having to destroy a bear, but they can't let it become a risk to people, Douglas explains. "We can't afford to let that happen."

The number of bears killed by wildlife officers vary from year to year.

"Typically, in a year, there would be less than seven black bears killed by officers in the Northwest Territories," says Ray Case, RWED's manager of technical support with the wildlife and fisheries division.

The bears are destroyed because of concerns for public safety, although it is not known how many are killed because of crowds of onlookers.

"In many years, there have been no black bears killed," Case notes.

However, in 1995, about 11 black bears were killed by wildlife officers in the Hay River/Fort Providence area alone.

"That's rare," Case explains. "They tend to be unique years when you have a major failure of natural food sources."

That could be something like a berry crop destroyed by a major frost.

Polar bears

Polar bears do not appear to be in the same predicament from crowds of people if they wander into a community farther north.

"In my experience, most people will let us do our jobs," says Ron Morrison, the regional superintendent of RWED's Inuvik Region.

Morrison says people realize polar bears are more dangerous than black bears.

"There's also a certain amount of respect for that animal," he says. "Most people don't want to see that animal die, either."

Unlike black bears, there is also a quota system on polar bears. If one has to be destroyed by wildlife officers, that is one less for the quota. That gives the polar bear more economic and cultural value.

Morrison says, unlike black bears, polar bears are not so much attracted to communities by garbage. Instead, they may be attracted to places like Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour and Holman by fish and seal meat fed to dogs. RWED's Case says a polar bear occasionally has to be destroyed by a wildlife officer.

"It's a once in every five years type of thing." There are fewer communities in the polar bear range and their habitat is away from populated areas, he notes.

Both black bears and polar bears are dealt with in much the same manner if they wander into a community.

The bear could be scared away with a noise-maker, such as a horn or siren, or hit with a rubber slug from a shotgun. That could be effective the first time, if the bear is not conditioned to a free feed from garbage.

Scaring them

Bears are also tranquilized or live-trapped, and relocated.

However, Bergman says the best deterrence is for people to keep their yards clean of garbage and to have secure garbage containers. "The main objective is to make sure the bear never gets that first feed."

Morrison notes repeat deterrence is difficult for polar bears. "Once attracted to a community, it's very difficult to chase them away and keep them away."

The NWT also has grizzly bears, which predominantly live on the Barren Lands. Their human encounters are mainly with trappers and hunters.

Bergman says grizzlies are quite bold and aggressive, and are harder to deter from a particular site.

"They haven't had the human contact, so they don't have the fear of humans."