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COVER STORY: Bear aware on the North Shore
North Shore wildlife advocate Tony Webb is beginning to reap the fruits of his labour.
It’s hard to imagine, but 12 years ago there were 39 habituated black bears killed on the North Shore by conservation officers in a single season.
“There was a public revolt,” recalls Webb.
Abhorred by what he saw as the senseless destruction of these animals, Webb banded together with residents, conservation officers, municipal staff and other community stakeholders to form the North Shore Black Bear Network.
On the third Wednesday of each month, the group convenes at a B.C. Parks office at the base of Mount Seymour to talk black bear abatement strategies. At their next meeting they will discuss desired changes to the provincial Wildlife Act and local municipal bylaws around beekeeping.
As of last spring, residents of multi-unit dwellings in the District of North Vancouver are allowed to keep up to 100,000 honey bees on their property. And while apiculture hobbyists are helping replenish the diminishing honey bee population, they might also be attracting unwanted visitors to their property.
“Bears seem to have built up an immunity to bee stings,” explains Webb.
He adds, an electric fence placed around the beekeeping operation is an effective deterrent for bears.
As chairman of the NSBBN, Webb works tirelessly to reduce conflicts between humans and black bears in suburban areas.
“The root of the problem is garbage,” he says.
Approximately 80 per cent of North Shore residents comply with their respective municipality’s solid waste bylaws around wildlife attractants, estimates Webb.
Under a DNV bylaw, placing garbage, recyclable material or yard trimmings at curbside before 5:30 a.m. or after 7:30 a.m. on collection day can result in a $100 fine for the homeowner.
The District of West Vancouver’s wildlife attractant bylaw is more stringent: residents could face a $300 fine for leaving garbage and any other refuse outside for pick-up earlier than 5 a.m. on collection day.
“Eight years ago you could drive up a street on the North Shore and find all the garbage cans on the street at night. And of course all the bears would come along and knock them over,” says Webb of the strides that have been made.
There have been half as many reported bear sightings so far this year on the North Shore, compared to the same time period in 2012.
WildSafeBC, a program that tracks human-wildlife conflicts in the province, recorded just over 500 bear-related calls from North Shore residents from Jan. 1 to Aug. 25.
Webb has his own barometer for measuring bear activity: the number of warning signs that have been placed in neighbourhoods. There have been 93 signs put up this year, compared to 120 in 2011.
Calling it an enigma, Webb can’t explain the drastic reduction in local bear sightings. He does have some theories, though.
“It’s been a good fruit year, with plenty of food around for the bears,” offers Webb.
Christine Miller, education coordinator with the North Shore Black Bear Society, a non-profit arm of the NSBBN, says there are various contributing factors to variable bear statistics.
“The bears last year that were destroyed could have generated a lot of calls as they roamed the community looking for accessible, unnatural food sources,” speculates Miller.
It’s Miller and Webb hope that the NSBBS’s well-developed bear education program has increased public awareness and inspired residents to secure their garbage and food scraps more securely.
In addition to giving presentations at schools and community events, Miller has started mailing bear awareness information to each new homeowner on the North Shore. Knowing that 1,240 homes have been sold on the North Shore this year is part of her business.
Miller also responds to residences where bear attractants are present, documenting such things as garbage strewn across a property. She creates a file for provincial conservation officers or municipal bylaw officers to follow-up on.
In the past year and a half, three infraction tickets under the B.C. Wildlife Act have been issued on the North Shore. In another local case, a Dangerous Wildlife Protection Order was leveled against a property owner and required the recipient to install bear-proof dumpsters.
Historically, the DWV’s approach to dealing with bear attractants in neighbourhoods has been to first educate residents and only use fines as a last resort.
However, after an increase in alleged violations, in 2011 West Van bylaw staff met with the NSBBS and formed a coordinated process for enforcing the wildlife attractant bylaw.
“It’s really a case of education over enforcement,” explains DWV spokesperson Jeff McDonald. “In 2013 to date we have issued 13 warnings to residences and only had to issue three fines.”
Volunteers from the NSBBS proactively patrol DWV neighbourhoods looking for residences where garbage has been placed outside the night before pick-up. Those homeowners are sent an information card advising them of the dangers of this practice, which also educates them on the bylaw.
As residents become more educated, Webb has found them to be less frightful of the burly animals.
“Now when people phone the Bear Line they are not in a state of panic,” he says.
Now in his 80s, Webb is showing no signs of slowing down when it comes to championing wildlife conservation.
In 2008 he was honoured by the DNV for his efforts in protecting wildlife in the area.
His ultimate goal is to see the North Shore municipalities receive Bear Smart status. The criteria for this provincially-funded program is set out by the Ministry of Environment and requires eligible cities to have strictly enforced bylaws for not attracting bears.
According to Webb, there is no animal attractant bylaw in North Vancouver that addresses residents having overflowing garbage containers in their carport.
In the District of Squamish, which has Bear Smart status, residents are required to use bear-resistant garbage containers. The DNV is currently mulling the use of similar bins as they look at overhauling their solid waste collection system.
An option currently being discussed is the 240-litre, hard-plastic cart outfitted with two heavy-duty clasps and steel around the lid. If approved by council, each district resident would pay approximately $120 for the locking cart.
Every day, conservation officer Ashley Page sees first hand the detrimental effects of mismanaged garbage. Page, who works in the North Vancouver-Sea-to-Sky zone, believes bears are creatures of habit.
“If they get food or rewards in an area they will come back,” she explains.
Such was the case on Aug. 21 when conservation officers were forced to kill their first bear on the North Shore this year.
“It’s the worst part of my job,” says Page of having to destroy habituated bears.
The three-year-old bear, which had previously been relocated to Fromme Mountain, was found roaming around Greenwood Park near East 20th Street and Ridgeway Avenue in North Vancouver.
“Relocation doesn’t work — I think we have gotten that point across. Habituated bears always come back to the food source,” says Webb.
Still, Webb takes comfort in the fact that, with each passing year, fewer bears are being killed on the North Shore.
“Oh, yes, absolutely — there has been a lot of change,” he says. “But we have to keep going. You only need one person on a street to be a bear attractant.”