Smarter than the average town

Can Reno learn about bears from a Canadian tourist city?

Courtesy Of Nevada Department of Wildlife

Two cubs forage for food in a Dumpster at Zephyr Cove. The Dumpster was “bear-proof,” but the lid had been left open. The cubs were later released away from houses and their tempting trash.

The mountains above Whistler, British Columbia, are bear country. Sightings are a daily occurrence in this resort community, the Canadian equivalent of Lake Tahoe, a year-round tourist destination. In the summer and fall, visitors line up by the dozens to shell out about 180 bucks each for bear-viewing excursions.

But, in recent years, Whistler residents have made great strides in their efforts to make the community “porous” for its black bears.

“If we’re going to live in bear country, then we need to be respectful of bears,” says Sylvia Dolson, a Whistler resident and the founder of the non-profit Get Bear Smart Society. It has been working with other nonprofits and with government agencies since 1999 to reduce conflicts between humans and bears.

“Bears should be able to travel through this valley,” she says. “But we don’t want them to stop and find a bird feeder or pick apart somebody’s compost.”

If everyone obeyed the law, bears picking apart the garbage wouldn’t be an issue in Whistler. All of the trash containers in the center of town are bear-proof, as are all the Dumpsters. Individual homeowners are not provided with garbage cans. Instead, they must haul their trash to one of two landfills to be compacted.

Not everyone obeys the rules, though, and the number of bears breaking into sheds, garages, and even homes is booming this year.

So, too, is the number of bears being killed. During one week in August, wildlife officers shot to death two bears. Another four were hit by cars and had to be euthanized.

“It makes me feel horrible,” Dolson says with a sigh. “I’ve been crying a lot. It’s very frustrating. I’ve been telling people the same thing for 11 years, and it’s not rocket science. Bears are lured into residential areas because there’s food here—whether it’s garbage or birdseed or other attractants—and that brings them into conflict.”

Dolson’s Get Bear Smart Society works hard to educate locals and tourists through brochures, bumper stickers and even TV ads. She has a lot of allies in her campaign.

“We like the bears to stay up in the ski area, where they don’t have potential conflicts with humans,” says Arthur DeJong, environmental resource manager for the Whistler-Blackcomb resort company. He has studied bears in the area for more than 25 years and continues to be amazed by their intelligence.

DeJong’s home is in a neighborhood equipped with a bear-proof Dumpster. He smiles as he tells the story of one smart bear that outwitted him and his neighbors in the hunt for food.

“He’s pulling the Dumpster out of the shed at night,” DeJong begins. “He knows how to open the door. He can’t open the lid because it’s bear-proof. So he’s figured out the driveway is on a hill, so he pushes it so that it’ll roll down and hopefully break open.

“It’s almost a Far Side,” he continues, grinning broadly. “He probably leans against the Dumpster smoking a cigarette. I mean, they are cognitive animals. They figure things out. We’re going to have to build a bear-proof shed.”

“To me it’s a symbolic challenge,” DeJong says, now serious. “Black bears are amazingly intelligent creatures. They’re so able to adapt to us. Why can’t we adapt to them? That’s the challenge in this community, to become completely bear-smart and be able to successfully coexist with bears.

“We hope to be an inspiration to other communities,” he says. “We’re trying. We’re dealing with bright animals, and we have to be brighter. If we fail with the black bear, we will fail with nature.”