A bear on Latham Island. Photo: Eric McNair-Landry
Wildlife officers have recently killed several black bears in NWT communities. While officials say this was necessary for public safety, could the bears have been captured and relocated?
Cabin Radio put that question to an NWT wildlife officer alongside black bear advocates and experts across Canada and Alaska. There are differing views regarding the need for a lethal response, but many of those we interviewed said relocation is not the sustainable solution some residents imagine it to be.
Instead, advocates say better education and prevention are key.
Toby Halle, a renewable resource officer based in Inuvik, said while wildlife officers do try to scare away or capture and relocate nuisance bears, that’s not always possible if the animals exhibit dangerous behaviours.
“If we can trap the bear and relocate it, that’s ideal, but unfortunately that’s not always the way we deal with it,” said Halle, stressing public safety must be an officer’s priority.
Halle said relocation doesn’t work if bears are accustomed to communities and reliant on humans for food.
“It’s just taking one problem and putting it somewhere else,” he said. “The likelihood of us being able to train bad behaviour out of a bear is next to nothing.”
At the Canadian Wildlife Federation, Nathan Clements agreed relocation is often ineffective in those circumstances. The bears, Clements said, will just return to the area or face challenges in their new habitat, while moving bears long distances is costly.
“It’d be great if … you could capture and relocate that bear and life would move on, but that’s not always the case,” said Clements.
Sylvia Dolson, executive director of the Get Bear Smart Society and co-chair of the BC Bear Alliance, has a different view. Only in “very rare circumstances,” said Dolson, is killing a bear the only viable option.
“I don’t really feel that bears deserve to be killed for showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t feel they deserve to be killed for eating a meal,” she said.
“In 90 percent of circumstances, it’s a really poor choice and it’s almost always based in fear and misunderstanding of an animal’s behaviour.”
The BC Bear Alliance represents more than 20 organizations in the province that deliver Bear Smart education and advocate for black and grizzly bears. The alliance recently called for independent oversight of conservation officers, more training, and preventative measures like ticketing people who leave out garbage or feed bears in BC.
Dolson said her organization does not recommend relocation either but there are instances where it could work, like moving a young, male black bear out of his mother’s natural range.
“Mothers don’t let their young males stay in their home range and so it’s very natural for a young male to be pushed out and be moved somewhere else,” she said.
‘A bandaid on a bullet hole’
If killing bears and relocating them are both flawed solutions, what other answers might be available?
In Alaska, Nils Pedersen is director of the Wind River Bear Institute, which works to reduce human-caused bear deaths. He says killing bears is “a bandaid on a bullet hole.”
“It’s just going to leave a void open for another bear to move into that bear’s place,” he said, though he, too, feels relocation is not a good option.
Instead, the institute uses Karelian bear dogs, a hunting dog from Finland, for “bear shepherding” – teaching problem bears to avoid humans.
“Ultimately, they understand that the cost-benefit of foraging this way is no longer worth it,” said Pedersen. “Every time they’re coming in, there’s nothing here for them, and every time they come in, we kick them out.”
The bear dogs, like shooting a bear or relocating it, are a reactive measure to a problem bear (though Pedersen says there are also proactive uses for the dogs that address bears before they can cause concern). Everyone interviewed by Cabin Radio said the real keys to avoiding human-bear conflicts are education and more proactive initiatives to ensure bears don’t become a problem in the first place.
Examples are removing and managing bear attractants like garbage, pet food, bird feeders, barbecues, and even gas cans.
“Our motto at the Wind River Bear Institute is ‘teach your wildlife well,’ which means don’t bait them in with your garbage and then be upset with them when they come in and forage on it and throw it everywhere and make a mess,” Pedersen said.
“I don’t believe it’s respectful to be constantly luring them in and then killing them as a result.”
Dolson said homeowners can use passive deterrents – electric fencing, or scarecrow animal repellers that spray water when they sense movement – to keep bears out of their yards. People camping or hiking can use bear spray and bear bells.
Clements pointed to Bear Smart as a community-based solution that helps to prevent bear encounters. The program works to reduce bear hazards in communities, educate residents, and create bylaws that prohibit irresponsible management of bear attractants.