Ur­ban Wildlife

In the North’s largest city, an­i­mals get­ting into the trash is more than a nui­sance

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Matthew Church

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.

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