63 bears destroyed in Yukon this year because of human conflict

The Yukon government crunched the numbers and confirmed that 2017 was a relatively bad year for human-bear conflicts in Yukon. It's estimated that more bears were killed this year than in any of the previous five years.

Yukon government estimates that's the most bears killed in at least five years

A bear gets into someone's garbage last summer in Whitehorse. Wildlife officials say garbage is the biggest attractant leading to human-bear conflicts. (Environment Yukon)

Reports of conflict between humans and bears in Yukon hit a five-year high in 2017, according to the territorial government, with at least 63 of the animals being killed this year.

That may be the highest number of dead bears since at least 2012, when the territorial government estimated 56 troublesome bears were killed in Yukon. Last year, an estimated 28 bears were destroyed.

The Department of the Environment compiled numbers from the last six years to better understand the issue, but acknowledged that data collection has been inconsistent over the years. 

"We decided it would be beneficial to look at our historical data from 2012, right across Yukon," said Aaron Koss-Young, a human-wildlife conflict officer with Environment Yukon.

According to that data, black bear conflicts are far more common in Yukon than grizzly conflicts — for example, this year there were an estimated 168 reports of black bear conflicts, compared to 38 grizzly encounters. 

Not all problem bears are killed. In 2017, Yukon conservation officers trapped and re-located ten bears.

Black bear encounters also vary more from year to year, with 92 conflicts in 2016 compared to 192 in 2012. The number of grizzly conflicts has been slightly more consistent, ranging from about 38 this year, to 59 in 2015.

Yukon conservation officers killed the majority of bears this year (39). The rest were killed by Yukoners, acting "in defense of life and property," according to the government.

Not all problem bears are killed — the government says 10 problem bears were re-located this year. Destroying a bear is considered a "last resort," according to conservation officers.

Garbage eaters

Wildlife officials also crunched the numbers to figure out what's behind all the human-bear conflicts.

The results were hardly a surprise.

The data 'gave us an idea of what the key attractants are, and it gave us an idea of where we should focus our resources and time,' said Aaron Koss-Young of Environment Yukon. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

"Yukon-wide, the biggest attractant remains garbage. Secondly, human foods like meat caches and smokehouses," Koss-Young said.

The numbers also show that bears are into pets, chicken coops, campgrounds and compost piles.

"It gave us an idea of what the key attractants are, and it gave us an idea of where we should focus our resources and time," Koss-Young said.

"Bears are getting into garbage in this community, and we should take measures to try and work at reducing it by implementing better waste management practices."

A brown bear raiding a dumpster in Whitehorse last summer. Conservation officers ultimately killed the bear. (Environment Yukon)

Geoff Quinsey, waste manager for the City of Whitehorse, agrees that it's helpful to have some data to work with.

"Dedicating staff to working full time on human-wildlife conflict is new, as far as I'm aware within the territory, within my lifetime. So I want to really celebrate the fact that the Yukon government has made that investment," he said.

"Where we put our focus is going to be defined by where we see the biggest opportunity and where the most conflicts have occurred historically."

Changing behaviour

One idea that's been talked about in Whitehorse is for the city to invest in bear-proof garbage cans for residential use. 

Heather Ashthorn of Wildwise Yukon, a local non-profit that works to reduce human-wildlife conflicts, says that hasn't happened yet, "for a number of reasons, part of it is cost."

A portrait of a woman.
'Some of the negative [bear] encounters within the city had happened after we had talked to people directly,' said Heather Ashthorn of WildWise Yukon. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

Her organization has gone door-to-door in several Yukon communities, to talk to residents about controlling bear attractants. She says the reception was generally positive, "but that doesn't mean they changed what they were doing." 

"Some of the negative [bear] encounters within the city had happened after we had talked to people directly. So that in itself was informative — unfortunate, but informative. It helps us understand where it's valuable for us to put our energy," she said.

And it's not just residents, according to Ashthorn — visitors may also cause problems. Last summer, Wildwise worked with some First Nations on a public education campaign to discourage roadside feeding of bears.

"Tourism may contribute to habituation and food conditioning of bears," Ashthorn said. "For example, if tour operators are depending on bear viewing for part of their income, or if tourists independently travelling up and down the road don't know about habituation and food conditioning.

"There's a lot of finger pointing, we know that ... probably what the reality is, we're all contributing to the problem a little bit."

With files from Mike Rudyk and Claudiane Samson