If Carmen Smith has her way, there will no free lunch for bears or other critters in Whitehorse wheelie-bins.
Smith is program co-ordinator for a non-profit society with the imposing moniker of Centre for Human-Wildlife-Human Conflict Solutions.
“Try saying that ten times fast,” she jokes. Not surprisingly, the organization prefers to be known as WildWise Yukon.
Founded in 2012 by a group of “amazingly willful women” in Marsh Lake and Whitehorse, its goal is to help prevent conflicts between humans and the wild animals whose space they share.
“A lot of people are still unaware of how many bear-human conflicts there are every year,” Smith says.
Then she quickly corrects herself, admitting she dislikes the term conflict.
“We actually prefer the term ‘trying to prevent negative human-wildlife encounters,’ because there’s no need for every encounter with an animal to be a negative thing. These animals are just doing what they need to survive.”
But when humans make that too easy, it’s usually the animals that suffer.
In 2012, Environment Yukon conservation officers relocated 17 so-called “nuisance bears” and killed 16 deemed a safety risk because they were hooked on human food sources. An additional five were killed in defense of life or property.
The addiction to human food often begins with unsafely-stored garbage and compost.
“They (conservation officers) can pretty much guesstimate where their calls are going to be coming from for bear sightings and encounters in town, based on the garbage pickup schedule’” Smith says.
“When you think about it, it’s like a bear buffet. When they walk down the street, they’re not as wary because they’re not approaching a building. It’s like this wonderful buffet. Depending on what pickup day it is, there’s either lots of organics in the compost, or lots of smelly garbage.”
Enter WildWise Yukon’s first pilot project to make residential compost and garbage bins less accessible to hairy invaders.
It invited 51 households on Finch Crescent to participate in two surveys and have their green and black bins retrofitted with bear-resistant locking devices at no charge.
Several other municipalities already use the devices, which basically consist of two small metal plates on each bin lid, with galvanized steel clips that attach to a steel cable running down the inside of the bin.
“Once you clip your locks in place to the little eye-hook on the outside of the bin, you’ve essentially secured the lid from being pulled open from the outside,” Smith says.
For those doubtful that such a simple mechanism can dissuade a hungry bruin, the locks have undergone bear-resistance testing at Montana’s Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, on the same kind of polycarbonate bins used in Whitehorse.
“They put some sort of a lure or attractant inside whatever product you’re testing, and they’ll smear it with peanut butter or fish oil, or something that smells really, really enticing,” Smith explains.
“Then they’ll put the product in the pen with the grizzly bear, and it has to withstand the grizzly bear trying to get into it for at least 60 minutes. Our clip locks passed that test.”
With the success of last year’s test on Finch Crescent – only one householder nixed the idea – WildWise Yukon plans a second pilot project this year, in either Copper Ridge or Granger.
“In conjunction with the retrofit project, we are working really hard to gain permission to sell the kits to anyone willing to step up and be ‘wild wise’, as we like to say.” Smith says.
If all goes well, the group hopes to get City approval to provide the locking kits at cost, for about $60 per bin.
Smith’s longer-term goal, though, is to see more bear-proof available in Yukon stores.
While that might seem like bad news for bears, in the long run it could be very good news.