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Environment

Where the NWT’s bears were killed or relocated in 2021


The NWT government has released statistics that show how many bears in each of the territory’s regions were either killed or relocated in 2021.

The figures don’t include historical data that would allow comparisons with previous years. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources said 2021 was “an average year.”

The data, provided seven months after it was first requested, shows 124 bears in the territory were killed by wildlife officers last year. Nine were relocated.

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In the past, bear advocates have expressed differing views to Cabin Radio regarding the need for a lethal response. Many of those interviewed say relocation is not the sustainable solution some residents imagine it to be. Instead, those advocates say better education and prevention are key.

Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for ENR, said relocations “are complex and challenging to do, and other approaches are often more appropriate.”

“Relocating bears through live traps or chemical immobilization requires multiple people, specialized equipment and training, coordination, and time to conduct safely and effectively,” Westwick said by email.

“Many bear situations are very time-sensitive, especially in community settings where action needs to be taken quickly to protect people nearby, which means relocation may be unfeasible.”

He said in other cases, bears become habituated to communities and human food, making relocation unlikely to succeed as the bears keep returning to communities.

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Westwick said four people have been killed by bears in the NWT since 1998.

Both Westwick and Lee Mandeville, a renewable resources officer in the North Slave, play down the suggestion that 2021 was a busy year for bear concerns near communities.

“Last year wasn’t anything out of the norm, there was just a lot more media coverage,” said Mandeville last week as he prepared for the forthcoming season, which will begin in earnest next month.

Providing an example of the kind of quandary a wildlife officer faces, Mandeville described an incident last summer in which a bear was put down at a park on Yellowknife’s Latham Island.

“Nice summer day, kids out there. Sometimes you just have to make a quick decision,” he said.

Some cases in which bears were relocated became well-publicized last year, none more so than a bear and two cubs who spent an afternoon outside Yellowknife’s Copperhouse restaurant in September 2021.

Wildlife officers used rubber bullets and tranquilizer darts to subdue the bears before moving them. The mother bear was subsequently dubbed “Copper” by ENR.

“That took a lot of personnel,” said Mandeville. “It’s a big operation.”

A bear in a dumpster near Yellowknife's Copperhouse restaurant. ENR/GNWT
A bear in a dumpster near Yellowknife’s Copperhouse restaurant. ENR/GNWT

Westwick said the impression that 2021 was busy may be because his department had “chosen to do a lot more proactive communication about our response to bears and other wildlife in communities, to shine a light onto how and why we make the decisions we make, and to get folks information they need to stay safe while enjoying the land.”

Even so, he acknowledged there had been a higher-than-average number of calls about bears from South Slave residents last year. In the Dehcho, Westwick said, 40 of the 46 bears killed were in Jean Marie River and Fort Simpson, actions that were “necessary to protect public safety while many residents were living in tents after the floods” in those communities last spring.

“Some local conditions associated with flooding, including failure of some freezers storing people’s frozen food, resulted in an increase in attractants and number of bears in the area,” said Westwick.

“We’re proud of the work officers in the department did to help out and keep people safe during some really tough and stressful times.”

Mandeville and colleagues have been completing recertifications and other forms of training ahead of the 2022 bear season.

This summer, officers wonder how the reopening of the NWT’s borders to tourism might change the frequency and nature of human-bear interactions.

“Last year seemed like it was busy but we were in the middle of Covid, right?” Mandeville said.

“I’m expecting maybe a busier season because of people being more active.”

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