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Saving bears: Revelstoke’s garbage dilemma

More than 400 bears have been killed in the city since 1986
While Revelstoke has one of the oldest bear awareness societies in the province, the city has yet to implement a community wide bear-proof garbage system. (Submitted)

This summer, a black bear sauntered into a downtown liquor store. The 400-pound animal came within metres of a flabbergasted customer before the store’s owner told it to leave. The bear obliged.

It’s likely this bear was one of seven killed this year by conservation officers due to safety concerns.

The province said when bears become habituated to humans it can lead to more aggressive behaviour. Last summer, a bear charged a Revelstoke resident in their yard, sending the man to hospital.

On average, seven bears have been destroyed each year since 2000. (Submitted)

Bears are Revelstoke’s iconic symbol from Grizzly Plaza downtown to the local hockey team the Grizzlies. Although the city has a long history of celebrating bears, 437 have been killed in the area since 1986.

The animals visit the city looking for garbage and unpicked fruit. Since bears need up to 20,000 calories a day to prepare for winter hibernation, garbage is easy calories.

READ MORE: Revelstoke bear saunters into downtown liquor store

Revelstoke has one of the oldest societies in B.C. advocating for bear awareness, which has pushed the city for at least 13 years to buy wildlife-proof garbage bins to reduce bear deaths.

The city planned to buy bear-proof bins for the entire community in 2014, but never did. While Revelstoke piloted two projects with bear-bins in Johnston Heights, they were later abandoned.

“It’s ironic and really a shame we don’t put our money where our mouths are,” said Jackie Rhind, city councillor.

“We know what we’re doing is wrong, but we continue.”

However, since the regional district is building a compost facility for Revelstoke, bear-proof bins could be back on the table.

History of bears in Revelstoke

After hundreds of bears were shot and taken to the Revelstoke dump in the early 1980s, Anita Coueffin said she needed to do something.

She started the Save the Bears Committee, one of the first of its kind in Canada.

The group aimed to reduce the number of bears killed each year through awareness, such as handing out brochures on how to secure garbage from wildlife.

Each time Coueffin heard a bear sighting on her pocket radio, she would follow the RCMP, demanding to know why they had to shoot the bear.

“The police hated me,” she said.

One time Coueffin found the RCMP and a crowd of people surrounding a bear up a tree. The police said they would shoot the bear when it climbed down as it posed a safety risk to the crowd.

Coueffin said she went and addressed the crowd.

“I told the nosy nellies to scam.”

People dispersed and the bear lived.

Sometimes, Coueffin would picket outside city hall, challenging the city to be more aggressive at managing garbage and getting people to glean fruit trees.

“I care about every animal having the right to live. They were here first. But our mentality says we’re better than them,” said Coueffin.

READ MORE: Feature: ‘Stop killing us’

She said the city didn’t start taking her seriously until her photo was on the front page of the Vancouver Sun, calling her the den mother.

“I think they thought I was a tree-hugging lunatic.”

By 1996, Save the Bear Committee became Revelstoke Bear Aware Society.

While bears are still killed yearly in the city, the number has dropped significantly, especially after an electric fence was installed around the dump in 1994.

On average, seven bears have been destroyed each year since 2000. However, in 2016, 24 bears were killed due to a poor berry crop, which most likely drove them into Revelstoke for food.

Chasing bears

Alex Desjardins, conservation officer, said Revelstoke has a long way to go with managing attractants.

“Everyone needs to get on board. The city, residents. It needs to be a team effort,” Desjardins said.

READ MORE: Number of bears killed in Revelstoke highest in 22 years

Revelstoke does have bylaws regarding wildlife attractants, i.e. bins cannot be stored outside or put out before 6 a.m. on collection day.

Once when Desjardins visited Revelstoke this summer, Black Press tagged along.

Desjardins responded to calls about bears sightings and unsecured garbage. He got one report of a bear bluff charging a lady walking her dog.

Alex Desjardins, conservation officer, writes a $230 ticket to a Revelstoke resident for not securing their garbage. Desjardins has been an officer for roughly 20 years. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

One man along Airport Way told Desjardins that a bear had broken into his six-foot fenced coup and ate all his chickens.

“But could I have gotten in with a four-foot crowbar?” asks Desjardins.

The man replies yes.

“Then it isn’t bear-proof,” said Desjardins.

Desjardins said when bears are killed, it’s the conservation officer that’s vilified, not the person that didn’t secure their garbage.

“Some days I don’t want my job. Others, it’s the best job in the world.”

While the lady that was bluff charged was unharmed, Desjardins said the bear displayed dangerous behaviour. Therefore, he set up a bear trap, baiting it with old chicken, bacon grease, molasses and Aunt Jemima syrup.

However, Desjardins said killing bears isn’t the most effective as another can just replace it. There are 160,000 black bears in B.C.

“If someone has a good strawberry patch in their yard, another bear will find it,” he said. The best way to manage bears, said Desjardins, is to manage attractants.

While the province used to relocate bears that got into garbage, the practice is now used infrequently.

Between 1986 and 1995, 161 bears in Revelstoke were relocated. However, only nine have been moved since 1996.

“Once a bear tastes human food, it can become habituated,” Desjardins said.

He said there’s no such thing as relocating bears into the middle of nowhere as humans are everywhere. The landscape is littered with dams, mining, logging and backcountry lodges. If bears know humans are around, said Desjardins, they fall into old habits.

“Bears are like humans. If you’re kidnapped, what would you do? Stay there or go back?” asks Desjardins.

A bear peers into the world of Revelstoke. (Photo by Tj Balon)

Outside Revelstoke

In July, Port Hardy became the ninth community in the province to become bear smart, meaning the municipality has bylaws to manage garbage and bear-proof bins.

Desjardins said becoming bear aware shows the community values its wildlife and goes to extra lengths to protect humans and animals.

In 2004, 27 bears were killed in Squamish. Outraged, the public demanded change and council committed to becoming bear smart.

Open garbage bins were replaced with bear-proof ones and the city got the designation by 2010.

“What we were doing before was clearly unsustainable. A lot of bears were being destroyed needlessly,” said Meg Toom, city wildlife educator for Squamish.

Yet, curbside bear-proof bins are not perfect. Sometimes bears still break-in.

Bear poop with plum pits beneath a fruit tree in Revelstoke. Revelstoke Bear Aware Society encourages residents to pick ripe fruit. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

Jay Honeyman, biologist for Alberta Parks, said individual bear-proof bins are still subject to human error. People still have to close them properly.

Unlike other communities, Canmore has centralized bins, i.e. large steel boxes that automatically lock.

Simon Robins, supervisor of solid waste services for Canmore, said the system has almost eliminated incidents between bears and garbage.

However, it’s costly. In 2019, the town spent nine times more than Revelstoke removing garbage, while only having twice the population.

While the town has few incidents between bears and garbage, bears still enter the community.

Honeyman said bears come into town to eat golf course grass and buffalo berries, a native fruit and major food source for the animal.

“The bear problem will probably never be solved, but it’s better than it used to be.”

Canmore has even banned bird feeders, chickens and strongly encourages residents to remove fruit trees.

“We truck everything in and everything out,” said Robins.

He said since wildlife habitat surrounds Canmore and the town is beside a national park, the focus is reducing bear attractants, even at the cost of local food production.

Bears are Revelstoke’s iconic symbol from Grizzly Plaza to the local hockey team the Grizzlies. In this photo a kid sits on top of a pair of bears that guard the entrance to downtown. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

Revelstoke tries

The Johnson Heights neighbourhood in Revelstoke did try bear-proof bins. However, the locks froze in winter, causing problems for collection.

There were also reports of bears stealing bins.

The program was canceled by 2016. Soon after, a centralized bin was placed in the neighbourhood, but residents started using it to throw away larger items like couches. That program was also canceled.

There are more than 300 bear bins in Canmore, each costing $10,000. (Photo by Phil Richards)

In 2016, Revelstoke had another opportunity to get bear-proof bins when it bought a new garbage truck. But, the city estimated garbage collection costs would more than double with bear-proof bins. So, the idea was abandoned.

“You’d think a bear-proof system is simple, but it isn’t,” said Jackie Rhind, city councillor.

For Rhind, the city getting community-wide bear-proof bins is one of her main objectives at council.

“We don’t want to be the only tourist operation that hasn’t figured it out.”

READ MORE: Revelstoke Bear Aware wants a bear friendly garbage program

READ MORE: Revelstoke Bear Aware offering cost sharing for bear resistant bins

The new composting facility is expected to become operational next year. As such, Revelstoke may opt for a new waste management system.

The city said it’s researching options, such as bear-proof curbside similar to Squamish or centralized bins like Canmore.

“Tax payers should speak up for what they want. We will listen,” Rhind said.

Is there another way?

The police in Placer County, California, get calls daily about bears getting into garbage. Roughly 400,000 people live in the county, which is half the size of Banff National Park.

In one video posted to social media, a giant bear dubbed “T-Shirt” gets stuck in a trash can, but police manage to free him.

In another video, a cub climbs on top of its mom trying to reach its sibling that fell inside a garbage bin. The police put a ladder into the bin and the youngster climbs free.

Sergeant Don Nevins said it’s common for bears to break into homes and even rip doors from refrigerators. In B.C., that behavior would usually lead to the bear being shot by conservation officers.

However, Nevins said it’s infrequent for bears to be killed in California. Placer County usually only shoots one per year.

“It’s severely frowned upon,” he said.

Peter Tira, spokesperson for California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said since California has almost 40 million people, bears and humans have to coexist.

This year, there have been six bear attacks in California, which the state said is higher than usual. By comparison for the last four year, the average number of British Columbians injured per year is 11.

Anita Coueffin, founder of Save the Bears Committee, said the U.S puts far more effort into saving animals than Canada.

“Here, we like to keep them out of sight and out of mind.”

Kyle Artelle, bear researcher, said he does not know why B.C. and California have different approaches for managing bears. B.C. is double in size, yet only 5 million people call it home. In total, California has up to 40,000 black bears, which is a quarter of the population in B.C.

Since 2011, B.C. has killed more than 6,000 bears.

“Perhaps we have a different level of tolerance. How willing are we to risk a bear attacking a human?”

Artelle said there’s a perception in Canada when a bear comes into town, it will always be a problem. Research in Ontario and Colorado suggests bears can return from a diet of garbage to berries if natural food conditions improve.

While bear-proof steal boxes for garbage is required for residents in Placer County, Nevins said it’s common for people in to use electric wires across windows and doors. Some residents even have an electric doormat.

Regardless, garbage is so plentiful in Placer County, some bears do not even hibernate anymore.

“Bears have really accumulated to our presence,” said Sergeant Don Nevins.

“They’re smart and fast learners.”

Nevins said he locks his vehicle outside the police station, not for people, but because bears have learned how to open car doors.

“The way we look at it, bears were here first. So, we go to the utmost not to hurt them.”

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