Feature: ‘Stop killing us’

Outrage and calls for reform following killing of nine bears by Conservation Officer in Revelstoke last week.

After the Review reported three bears were killed in Revelstoke last Tuesday (the number was actually four) a resident went out and brought their own awareness to the issue. The work was quickly cleaned up by the city.

Dan Bartol’s voice was weary and distraught as he described killing nine bears in Revelstoke to me last week.

“This is probably the worst week I’ve ever had in my life in terms of work,” the Conservation Officer said on Thursday after he returned to Golden following three ugly days in Revelstoke. “I’ve euthanized a number of bears over my career but never with such frequency. I’ve never seen such persistent problems. The volume is almost overwhelming.

“It’s no fun shooting any bear, but to shoot a cub is really tough.”

Bartol shot four bears on Tuesday, including one high-profile incident downtown; another four on Wednesday, including a sow and her two cubs; and one more on Thursday. He worked long days and left exhausted, knowing there were still problem bears in the community and he would likely have to come back.

On Monday he was on his way back to Revelstoke to deal with more problem bears. “Since those nine were euthanized I’ve had about 40 reports of bears either walking through town, getting into garbage or living in people’s fruit trees,” he said Monday morning. “I’ve had three reports of bears breaking into sheds because they’re so food conditioned.”

The deaths, coming in such a short period, sparked a huge outrage in the community and lead to a serious questioning of how bear smart Revelstoke – a city that’s adopted the grizzly as it’s symbol – actually is. As well, a petition was launched calling for the restoration of the Conservation Officer position to Revelstoke; there hasn’t been one here since late-2013.

The Kills

Photo: Revelstoke RCMP and Fire Rescue Services stand on First Street East where a bear was shot and killed last Tuesday. ~ Photo by Alex Cooper, Revelstoke Review

1. On Tuesday morning, a garbage-habituated bear was killed in Columbia Park. It was seen running from house to house, getting into people’s garbage, and showed no fear of people.

2. A bit later, an injured, unhealthy bear was euthanized in the Big Eddy. “It had  very big paws, a very big head but was very skinny,” Bartol said.

3. A bear that was getting into garbage and food that was left out by a local restaurant was killed downtown on Tuesday evening. This was the incident that sparked the outrage. Bartol said he got very close to the bear, but it ignored him and continued to feast. “The bear had to be destroyed. There was no other option for the bear in this situation,” he said. The bear was shot once in an alley, but it was able to limp away and take cover inside the alcove of Denny’s Leggings, where Bartol took a second shot and killed it. “It was a traumatic experience for everyone for sure,” he said. The restaurant was issued a ticket for attracting dangerous wildlife and faces a fine of $230 if they’re found guilty.

4. On Tuesday night, a bear that was getting into people’s garbage and fruit trees in the Big Eddy was killed.

5. On Wednesday morning, a bear that was getting into garbage and had charged at people was killed in the Big Eddy.

6–8. On Wednesday, a sow and her two cubs were killed after they were seen wandering around the Williamson’s Lake campground, getting in and out of people’s garbage. In one case, they dragged food out of someone’s open trailer. The COs tried to chase them away, but they kept returning to the campground. After talking to campers and the host, and finding a pile of garbage under a tree, all three animals were killed. Bartol said they considered tranquilizing the cubs and bringing them to a rehabilitation centre, but after watching them and consult with a wildlife vet, they determined that was not possible. “They were already displaying very bad habits,” he said. “They were not candidates for rehabilitation.”

9. On Wednesday, two traps were set targeting bears that were getting into garbage — one in Columbia Park and the other in the Big Eddy. Bartol said a bear wandered into the Big Eddy trap almost immediately. It was killed Thursday morning.

The Context

Chart: The number of bears killed or relocated in the Revelstoke area each year from 1986 to 2015. ~ From Revelstoke Bear Aware

The nine deaths last week bring the total number of bears killed this summer in Revelstoke to 10, with the number likely to climb. Last year, only three bears were killed in the area, according to Revelstoke Bear Aware. In 2014, 10 bears were killed. In 2012 and 2013, four bears were killed, including one grizzly. In 2011, 10 were killed.

The numbers are a far cry from the late eighties when dozens of bears were killed every year, including a high of 55 in 1988. Statistics provided by Bear Aware show a significant decrease in the number of bears killed each year since 1994, the year an electric fence was place around the dump. From 1996 to 2015, the number of bears killed in the Revelstoke area eclipsed 10 in seven out of 20 years. From 1986 to 1995, 15 grizzlies and 266 black bears were killed.

It’s not just that there are a lot of bears being killed this summer, there’s just lots of bears being seen. According to statistics provided by the Ministry of the Environment, there were 146 reported bear sightings in Revelstoke as of Aug. 17, compared to only 31 in the same period last summer.

This year is on pace to end up being the worst since 2003, when 18 black bears were killed. What’s changed to make the situation so bad?

CO Dan Bartol attributed it to several factors. First, he said the valley-bottom berry crop dried up a few weeks ago, around the same time fruit trees started ripening in town. Black bears were faced with a choice — either venture into the mountains, where they might encounter an unfriendly grizzly, or feast on the fruits in town.

“I think that probably plays some roll in it. Last year the timing might have been completely different,” said Bartol.

Once they’re done eating fruit, they might smell some garbage and go after that as the next easy food source, he added.

As well, the rise in tourism could also be a factor, with more people around unaware of how to act around bears.

“All of these combined to create what is in my mind a perfect storm to have this many bears destroyed in a short time, and still have problem bears and still have attractants out there,” said Bartol.

The Petition

PHOTO: A bear walks off with a bag of garbage. Nine bears have been killed in Revelstoke this week — eight because they were habituated to eating garbage. ~ Revelstoke Review File Photo

The deaths sparked outrage in the community and they were the talk of the town last week. You can see a sample of the comments posted to the Review website and Facebook page on page six.

The incident downtown prompted the launch of a petition asking for the province to bring a Conservation Officer to Revelstoke. The area has been without one since the previous CO retired in 2013.

“Revelstoke is a beautiful community surrounded on all sides by amazing wilderness. With this pristine location comes the inevitable conflict between humans and wildlife,” the petition states. “An adequately managed conservation program can reduce the number of these conflicts by educating the local community, enforcing legislation designed to protect people and animals alike and responding to conflicts in a timely manner.”

The petition is directed at Mary Polak, the B.C. Minister of the Environment, and has already been signed more than 400 times. Polak has repeatedly denied requests from the community to re-instate a CO here. In January 2015, she wrote a letter to mayor and council saying that Revelstoke could be served by Conservation Officers in Golden, which is at least a 90 minute drive from here.

In an interview, Gordon Hitchcock, the acting deputy-chief CO for the province, gave no indication that a CO would be posted in Revelstoke. “The current deployment model for the CO service is on a zone and a regional mobile response model,” he said. “Because of changing times, the CO Service had to evolve like many other first responder agencies. In that case we had to put resources where the need is and be very mobile and flexible.”

Essentially, it’s status quo, with the two COs in Golden expected to respond to incidents in Revelstoke. “The expectation and obligation is they are a service provider for the zone,” he said. “If Revelstoke is an area of concern then resources are provided there.”

When asked how the COs could be expected to respond quickly to incidents in Revelstoke if they were 90 minutes away in Golden, Hitchcock said the officers scheduled their days where there were “concerns or emerging issues.”

“Revelstoke isn’t alone,” he said. “If the service isn’t being held to a high standard or there are legitimate reasons to be in a community, there are corrective measures taken.”

Statistics provided by the Ministry of Environment show that COs responded to far fewer bear calls in Revelstoke than in Golden. As of August 17, they had responded to seven of 146 calls, compared to nine of 32 in Golden, four of 14 in Fernie and 26 of 101 in Whistler.

Hitchcock added that dealing with bear issues wasn’t just up to the CO Service, it was a community-wide issue. “It’s a government and community obligation to keep bears wild and communities safe,” he said.

The Policy

Photo: A black bear feasts on some garbage in Revelstoke. ~ Photo contributed by Revelstoke Bear Aware

One of the big questions that always comes up is why are bears killed when they are conditioned to eating garbage. Why not let them be, or why can’t they be rehabilitated or relocated?

CO Dan Bartol said he doesn’t respond to every call of a bear sighting. “If it’s hanging around but it’s not gotten into food, but it’s persistent in an area, that’s something we monitor,” he said.

As an example, he pointed to a sow and two cubs that was living near the Sutton Place Hotel. At one point it grabbed some garbage out of an unsecure bin by the front door. Bartol’s response was to shoot it with a rubber bullet and scare it away. “Was that a food conditioned bear or not?” he said. “That’s where there’s a bit of grey area, but I don’t think it is. It didn’t get a big food reward so I don’t think it’s going to come back again and again.”

A bear that’s seen repeatedly going back to a garbage source and shows no fears of humans is one that will most likely be killed because they become a threat to public safety. “It’s fairly black and white,” said Bartol. “There’s some grey area but I think most officers will make the exact same assessment.”

Why not relocate or rehabilitate them? I put that question to Angelika Langen of the Northern Lights Wilderness Society, an organization that rehabilitates bear cubs and other animals. She was very blunt in her answers. “No you can’t” she told me. “We can take cubs because they haven’t learned (garbage) as a food source yet. Once they’re old enough that they have recognized that as a food source, it’s a learned behaviour and you won’t get that out anymore.”

As for relocation, she posed a question. What if I was kidnapped from Revelstoke and forced into a stranger’s home in Golden? My reaction would either be to try and go home, or else I might end up in a fight with the stranger. That’s what bears do. “What you basically do is kill another bear because they fight each other until a bear is dead,” Langen said.

“This is squarely on the people that these bears are dead,” she said. “It’s not on the CO or anybody else, it’s on the people who leave their garbage out so the bears are habituated to it.”

The City

Councillor Trevor English, who is filling Mayor Mark McKee’s shoes while he is on vacation, responded for the City of Revelstoke. He called the incidents “very unfortunate” and said “we are saddened that they happened.”

He said public safety was the city’s main priority and that residents must take steps to ensure bears aren’t drawn into the community.

“The city encourages residents to be responsible with securing garbage, obeying bylaws, recycling, harvesting fruit and composting,” he wrote in an e-mail responding to questions from the Review. “We live in a mountain town and we should all be extra careful to not create situations that attract bears into our community.”

When asked what steps were being taken to prevent human-bear conflict, he pointed to the work of Bear Aware and changes to the solid waste bylaw which allow for residents to fined for not properly securing garbage or putting it out too early.

As for bear-proof garbage cans, he said a pilot program in Johnson Heights showed problems. “The garbage cans did not work well in the winter because they froze and the latches would not close and would break,” English wrote. “A few people reported missing cans as bears were taking them into the bush.”

The 2009 pilot-program was considered a success by Revelstoke Bear Aware, which initially advocated for the cans to be rolled out city wide.

English said the problems with the cans showed up over time, when the locking mechanisms started to break. “They were too heavy to manually lift and bears were removing the cans from properties,” he said.

The cost of the bear-proof garbage cans was also an issue. Back in 2011, the city budgeted $500,000 to purchase them city-wide in 2014, however it never followed through on that. Last fall, when the city sought proposals for private garbage collection, Bresco came back with a bid that would have cost each household more than $250 per year for an automated collection system using bear-proof garbage bins — more than double what residents actually pay.

The city recently moved to a centralized, bear-proof garbage bin in Johnson Heights and is considering installing them in other neighbourhoods.

“The Conservation Officers have had no complaints in Johnson Heights this year, which is usually a problem area,” said English. “Public works verified this as well. The cost savings is a bonus.”

English, who chairs the city’s security committee and also sits on the public works committee, said he will be raising the bear issue at both committees’ next meetings.

“We will need to dedicate more resources to bylaw enforcement to enforce what attractant bylaws we have,” he said. “We will also need to direct resources to public works to come up with solutions that are realistic and workable.”

Centralized bins will be required at higher-density developments, like the ones proposed for Nichol Road and Track Street.

“The city takes the wildlife conflicts very seriously and will strive to improve the awareness and responsibility of the businesses and residents in our community in a effort to protect both the residents and the bears from these types of situations,” he said.

Lastly, English said the city requested to discuss the return of the Conservation Officer to Revelstoke with Mary Polak, the Minister of the Environment, at the Union of BC Municipalities conference in September.