Whitehorse Daily Star

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Photo by Vince Fedoroff

ON THE PROWL – This bear was seen on the Schwatka Lake Road in May of this year.

Bears were less of a problem than usual

An abundance of natural food in the forests of the Yukon has led to a very welcome peaceful season for territorial conservation officer when it comes to bears.

By Tim Giilck on September 13, 2021

An abundance of natural food in the forests of the Yukon has led to a very welcome peaceful season for territorial conservation officer when it comes to bears.

Jim Welsh is the co-ordinator for hunting education for the Department of Environment.

He said recently a good berry crop, especially for soapberries, is helping to entice black and grizzly bears to remain deeper in the woods so far this year.

“I was out over the (Aug. 28-29) weekend, and there a lots of soapberries, and lots of other berries,” he told the Star.

Sightings of bears, and reports of problem bears, are well below the average for the four years he’s spent on the job.

“Come to think of it, I haven’t been seeing many bears from the road this year either,” he said.

That’s nearly an ideal scenario for conservation officers and bears.

When bears and humans mix too much, there’s too much potential for problems to develop.

Welsh said it’s also better when such a good year for natural food comes along, because it helps bears from being habituated to human-provided food. As the saying goes, “a fed bear is a dead bear.”

Right now, the bears are heading into hyperphagia, which refers to them eating around the clock in some cases as they obsessively focus on packing on the pounds for winter.

“If I slept six months of the year, I’d be doing the same thing,” Welsh said. “They’re really trying to stock up.”

That might make bears more obvious to the public, but they’re so single-minded about gorging they also might not pay as much attention to people as earlier in the year.

Welsh said as long as people take steps to reduce or eliminate attractants for bears, all should be well.

It’s important that people don’t underestimate just how keen a bear’s nose is.

“They can scent something hundreds of times better than we do,” he said.

Some scientists suggest that bears might have the keenest nose of any animal on Earth. They have a formidable intelligence as well, and a near-photographic memory.

“If they’ve found food around a location, like someone’s property, they just can’t help themselves,” Welsh said.

So far, conservation officers have had to euthanize only one bear this year, he said.

That was a young black bear raiding garbage and coming close to people in Riverdale last spring.

There are bears in Riverdale “all the time,” Welsh said, but they usually aren’t much of a problem.

That’s an unusually quiet year for problem bears, he said, and he hoped it kept on this way.

There’s potential for problems to develop all through the fall and into the winter, Welsh said.

He pointed to a small number of grizzlies that were shot in the name of public safety in December 2020 and one last January.

The officers would prefer not to have to deal with those kinds of situations.

“It’s hard on us when we have to do that,” he said.

Generally speaking, a bear that’s still out late in the season is a potentially dangerous animal, Welsh noted.

He wanted to emphasize for hunters to take care this time of year.

Because bears will “follow their nose” to a food source for about as long as they have to, any hunters handling meat, even if they’re leaving it to hang in an outbuilding on their property, need to “beware the bear.”

Welsh said it’s not much of a challenge for a bear to break into most sheds. There’s absolutely no challenge at all for a bear to snatch meat off a stand outside somewhere.

One of the best ways to keep such bears away is to use an electric fence, Welsh said.

The costs of such fences, and their ease of use, are substantially better than they were years ago, he said. In some places, there are even electric fences that can be borrowed.

The potential for human-bear conflicts is also high this time of year, Welsh said. Hunters are out, hikers are out, berry-pickers are still out.

The best strategy on the part of people is to make sure any bears in the area are aware of their presence.

In particular, he wanted to remind people, especially runners, cyclists and hikers, to avoid using earbuds and headphones while they’re enjoying some time outdoors.

There have been several close calls involving wildlife in recent years with people who having been wearing the devices.

Welsh recommended using something like a bluetooth speaker instead to help alert wildlife to human presence.

As for other wildlife currently, he recommended people be on the alert for moose.

The animals are going into the rutting season now, and Welsh said the males “aren’t in the right mind. That’s why you’re seeing them crossing roads. They’re really on the move.”

Caribou mating season happens a little later in the year, he said.

That’s when things can become problematic in areas such as Teslin, where vehicle-caribou collisions can be common.

“Basically, the same approach applies to all wildlife,” Welsh said.

“Try to avoid them, and be aware they’re around.”

Comments (2)

Up 10 Down 0

Changes? on Sep 14, 2021 at 3:04 am

The soap berries are back after largely being missing in action the two previous summers. This is the first time that I had noticed this in my lifetime.
This is one factor, I'm sure there are others.

Up 9 Down 2

Sheepchaser on Sep 13, 2021 at 11:01 pm

We consistently underestimate our impact on these animals. Sightings of tourists throwing food to them on the side of the Alaska Highway now number over two dozen for me personally. Let’s not even get started on the messy lots and food garbage caused by people who should know better.

Maybe the headline could be changed to be more accurate? ‘Less willfully ignorant humans around is good for wildlife’.

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