In the North’s largest city, animals getting into the trash is more than a nuisance
Bad news, bears: In Whitehorse, the North’s largest city, animals getting into the trash is more than a nuisance, it’s a danger
With more than 26,000 citizens, Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon, is the largest city in all of northern Canada. While it is one of those city names Canadians know, many would be hard-pressed to say exactly where it is: it lies just about 80 kilometres north of the 60th parallel and the border with British Columbia. Situated on a wide riparian plain on the shores of the Yukon River, with a steep escarpment and plateau at its back, it is an inviting location. Archeological evidence dating back 2,500 years points to it being a popular locale for hunting and fishing among Indigenous peoples, likely ancestors of the Southern Tutchone, Inland Tlingit and Tagish peoples who live in the area today.
Protected in a valley surrounded by mountains to the east, south and northwest, it has a gentler climate than other northern cities: warm, dry summers with long hours of daylight. Winter nights are long and cold of course, though mild compared with other cities in the Canadian North. Still, even at extremes, the harsh temperatures are mitigated by the advantageous location, stunning natural beauty and congenial urban life. Humans are not the only creatures who enjoy this neck of the northern woods. Calling itself “the Wilderness City” is not just another tourist board boast: the wild is right there. Not far outside of town is a wildlife preserve with, among others, thinhorn sheep, mountain goats, muskoxen, elk and Canada lynx. Right downtown you might see foxes, wolves and bears. Plenty of bears.
Since 2012, Whitehorse has also been home to the Centre for Human-wildlife Conflict Solutions, a not-for-profit working to reduce the lethal outcomes that result from the clashes between humans and wildlife. Operating under the catchier sobriquet Wildwise Yukon, the organization’s ambit encompasses the entire Yukon territory, researching trends and engaging and educating communities about the best ways to reduce dangerous encounters on roads, trails and around their homes and businesses.
In the past several years, Wildwise has been paying attention to the increasing number of bear-human clashes in its own backyard in Whitehorse itself. As the city has continued to grow, so has the problem: there was a six-time increase in incidents between 2006 and 2012. Wanting to understand the true scale of the challenge, Wildwise began in 2015 with an audit, funded by the territory and city governments, the Ta’an Kwäch’än First Nation, the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, businesses and non-profit agencies. A firm of experts in bear behaviours was hired to conduct a hazard assessment. They found that between 1997 and 2014, there had been at least 243 bear-human encounters, 33 occurring in the downtown area alone. Since then, they have been increasing. On average, since 2012 there have been 20 human-bear conflicts reported within city limits per year. From 2012 to 2017, 18 bears within the city limits had to be destroyed, one-third of those in the last year.
Why the increase? First reaction seemed to be a case of “blaming the victims.” But animals go where the food is easiest to get. According to the consultants’ report, garbage and other “nonnatural attractants” in the expanding city were the cause in 70 per cent of encounters. The suburban neighbourhoods, easiest to access for bears, offer plentiful garbage and organic waste to be composted. Greasy barbecues and bird feeders are lures too, as are fruit trees and shrubs, especially those from which the fruit has not been harvested. Even city parks, playgrounds and schools are below basic standards. The consultants’ numerous recommendations included introducing bear-proof garbage bins, surrounding other attractants (beehives, hen houses) with electric fencing, removing bird feeders during the summer and reducing the use of decorative fruit and berry trees on residential and city property.
The response to the report was mixed. In a follow-up door-todoor survey in 2017, two-thirds of respondents said a better system for securing waste in bear-proof containers should be enacted by the municipality. But, as to taking down bird feeders, securing barbecues and reducing the use of decorative fruit trees, barely one-third agreed, despite the likelihood that more bears would be drawn to their neighbourhoods and more destroyed. For its part, at the time of writing, the Whitehorse city government has not introduced bear-proof containers, has not enacted a wildlife attractant bylaw or added meaningful wildlife attractant management to its solid waste bylaw, even as it rolls out enhanced curbside organics collection. Sounds like a good way to attract bears.