The First Wildlife Coexistence program on Vancouver Island

Around 40 people turned out for the Wildlife Coexistence Gathering on Cortes Island. This was an opportunity for Cortesians to meet some of the extended community of advisors  to the local program and learn more about our three top predators: grey wolf, black bear and cougar. The gathering was organized and hosted by Sabina Leader Mense and Georgina Silby from the Cortes Community Wolf Project. It began with a welcoming ceremony in the Klahoose All Purpose Building on Friday, April 5. There was an all day teaching series in the Linnaea Education Centre the following day. The gathering ended with a walk through the wildlife travel corridor in Hank’s Beach Forest Conservation Park on Sunday, April 7.  

Sabina Leader Mense emailed, “We celebrated our cultural relationships to our wild kin with the Klahoose First Nations singers & drummers and our guests Grace SoftDeer from the Chickasaw First Nation and Dennis Hetu from the Toquaht First Nation. We then explored our social and ecological relationships with our wild kin in formal and informal presentations by our invited guests, Bob Hansen, Pacific Rim Coordinator for WildSafeBC and Todd Windle, Coordinator for the Wild About Wolves Project.

Cortes Currents recorded most of the sessions at Linnaea and has arranged the material in a series of articles. This is an abridged version of the segment in which Bob Hansen talked about the origins of Vancouver Island’s first wildlife coexistence program. Years later it became the model for Cortes Island’s program, and Hansen was one of Sabina Leader Mense’s mentors.

Bob Hansen (right) standing behind Sabina Leader Mense (centre) during one of the conversations at Hank’s Beach on Sunday April 7, 2024 – Roy L Hales photo

Bob Hansen, ”What I’m going to talk about in this presentation is through a personal lens and it’s going to  focus on my personal learning journey in time from Tofino in 1997 to here today, and a lot of points in between. The basic theme is a story of going from one person, feeling like they’re working on things by themselves, to today, we are part of many communities that are working towards the same objectives.”

In 1997, the Pacific Rim National Park hired Hanson for a new program. His title is Human Wildlife Conflict Specialist and he was expected to find a solution to the park’s ongoing bear problem. 

Bob Hansen: “Our track record at that time was, we tended to be killing one to three bears every year.  At times we would have trails closed and occasionally even the Green Point Campground closed during bear season due to conflicts.” 

“How can we break this cycle of responding to bear calls and putting down bears?” 

“This really challenged me because all of my training and experience was in reacting to bear situations.  I really had to stop and think carefully and long about  my first steps towards fixing things like actually preventing having bear calls.”

“One of my first lessons was that I had the support of the park management team. They said, ‘Do what you need to do to build this program.'”

“Another lesson was how important it was to ask for help.  There were three other human wildlife conflict specialists in Western Canada and there was also the community of Revelstoke, which was the first community to have a Bear Aware program. It’s where Bear Aware (Now called WildSafeBC) started.” 

“I embarked on a 10 day learning road trip.  At each stop (in Jasper, Banff, Lake Louise and Revelstoke), I spent time with those people that were totally focused on not only reacting, but preventing human bear conflicts.” 

“I came back with so many ideas and so many positive examples to follow. Revelstoke was really interesting because they had destroyed, in recent years,  around a hundred bears.   They  were the first community in BC to electric fence their landfill. As a result, all of these food conditioned bears (and many of them grizzly bears), moved the short distance down the valley and into the community of Revelstoke. This community was really on the front lines of intense learning, head scratching and brainstorming on ‘how do we break out of this?’ They had a community coordinator, who was very inspiring and they developed a Bear Aware program.”

“Another theme that emerged from that road trip (that I already knew to a certain extent, but really saw everywhere  on this trip), was the importance of infrastructure. So, having containers that the bears couldn’t break into to get garbage. It’s ‘manage the attractants.’ That is one of the ultimate pieces of preventing conflicts with bears, wolves and raccoons.  It’s a really important principle and when I got back to the park one of the first things I did was an inventory of all the garbage cans.  It was shocking. Over 80% of the garbage cans were no longer bear resistant.”  

“I quickly hit on the importance of having an urgent meeting with the park management team to address this.  It would take a lot of money, but we had to do this as a national park. I thought, ‘I’m going to make a video.'” 

“So I made a video showing this garbage can (pictured above) and many others and I basically proceeded to rant. Thankfully a colleague saw the video first. She said, ‘no, no, no,  (laughter) this is not going to have the desired effect!’ She edited the video, toned down and basically eliminated the rant.”

“It was such an important lesson in communication. Proclaiming ‘I’m in the right, here’s the facts, you need to do what I ask you,’ is not going to work. Communication requires some skill. I hadn’t had to employ that in the past. I went out to bear calls, dealt with it in the field, I didn’t have to  really convince people of things. It  became very apparent that I had a lot of learning to do on the communication side and education side.” 

“We showed the video. It really took the management team aback and they approved the funding. We began a multi-year program of replacing the infrastructure in the park.”  

“Right after we got started on that, we had a very intense situation in Green Point Campground. We’d had to destroy this bear’s mom because she was food conditioned and had been getting food around a restaurant and was being fed from vehicles . It went into a  park interpreter’s vehicle one night while he was giving an evening presentation. He came out and his car  was ripped apart. He left a chocolate bar under the seat that he’d forgotten about. The bear popped out the window and climbed inside.” 

“Its cub was just at the age where he’d be going out on his own. It had already become food conditioned.  So we tagged it and then worked on that cub for a year to try and change its behaviour. After midnight on a Thursday night,  going into a long weekend, I had a call from the Wickaninnish Restaurant manager.” 

“He was really upset, ‘I just caught the last  restaurant guests leaving the restaurant, and they took a doggy bag, and they’re feeding the bear on the ramp.’”  

“He chased the bear off and yelled at the people, but thought I should know.” 

“The next day, that bear was on a picnic table, in the walk-in portion of the Green Point Campground, tearing apart a pack in the middle of the day. I had to make the decision to kill the bear. It was Friday night of a long weekend. The bear would not be going anywhere. It would remain where there was food and garbage available. So myself and another warden evacuated the area. We had to shoot the bear and carry it out to a truck in the parking lot. The campground staff were in tears. There was a whole school group that had just arrived and were  assembled in the parking lot. We had to carry the dead bear past all of them.  We took the animal to the warden office  and did a necropsy. Its stomach was full of plastic garbage.” 

“It really hit our warden team that responded to this situation and had to take all those actions.  We did a debrief late that night and we were angry and frustrated.” 

The consensus was: “‘we have to do something different. We’ve been doing the same thing for years. It’s not working. How do we break this cycle?’” 

“What we came up with was the bigger campsite program. By the end of that night, we pretty much had it. What we came up with that night in 1998, is what it is today.” 

“It took some convincing, but we got management team support.  The next spring we implemented the Bare Campsite program at Green Point.  It was where I hit on the realization that Sabina Leader Mense likes to use, ‘education is more effective than law enforcement.’”  

Up until that point they had essentially been policing the park. 

Bob Hansen: “We had been going around in the campgrounds, particularly on weekends, and filling our truck full of coolers and giving out tickets and warnings. it wasn’t changing the camper’s behaviour.”

“This new program was heavily, heavily focused on education and a lot of intensive one on one communication with the campers. We really redirected a lot of staff time into education and really trying to help the campers understand what we’re asking them to do and why, and how it can make a difference.”

“We hit a home run. Since the program was instituted in 1999, 2 or 3 bears have been destroyed. We were totally surprised that it was so effective.  It spread across the National Park System and now WildSafeBC has a whole program directed at promoting it across BC.” 

“A couple of local private campgrounds  have implemented it and I was working on a project with provincial parks this past winter.  They’re looking at pilot provincial parks. So, it’s just a good idea that works and it can help break that cycle.” 

“Another lesson learned was the importance  of working relationships. At that point in time, our  relationship with the Conservation Officer (CO) service  was just hanging on by a thread. Things had gone wrong that had put that relationship on the rocks and they were hesitant to work with us. We were hesitant to work with them. It wasn’t really clearly understood why that was the case.”

The turning point came when a veteran conservation officer walked into the office.  

Bob Hansen: “He said, I know you guys don’t like us but  we’re doing our best. Maybe you don’t agree with our methods, but we’re going to do what we’re going to do and I just want to extend the courtesy of coming in and introducing myself and the new young CO.” 

“We had a coffee, and from that day, we started our working relationship.” 

“He was a very sincere guy, he’d been a CO for over 30 years, and he said, ‘I am so sick to death of shooting bears.’  I told him some of the things that we were working on. He says,  ‘We need to work together because this is the direction we need to go.’ As a result of that, we got together with the CO service. We funded the first Bear Aware program on Vancouver Island’s west coast’s communities and we set up a regional working group.” 

“At the end of his working day, he would drive the hour and a half from Port Alberni to attend evening meetings of the working group out at Pacific Rim. Then after the first few meetings, he started bringing  his boss from Nanaimo. His boss would drive from Nanaimo to attend the meetings.” 

“Out of all of that collaboration, we decided to actually create a formal agreement to work together for the future.”

“It took several years of Parks Canada higher ups and the CO Service higher ups and ourselves to create a mutual aid agreement that was signed off by the superintendent of the park here and also the upper management superintendents there. It’s still in place, as far as I know.” 

Bob Hansen: Todd, do you know if any other national park has signed a  mutual agreement?”

Todd Windle: “There was some work on one.  It was at Mount Revelstoke-Glacier National Parks in BC. I don’t know how far the negotiations have gone. That’s pretty much the name they were using. This is the template to build off of.” 

Bob Hansen: “Our work and relationship has only grown and become stronger over time. So another lesson learned. Instead of just responding to bear calls,  now we’ve got a community working Bear Aware group. We have the Bare Campsite Program, which primarily focuses on education. We’re working on infrastructure.”  

“One thing that came out of the working group and the Bear Aware Program was this  realization that champions tend to emerge.  If you have a group of people that get together, have honest sincere conversations and you do have common ground to work from: champions emerge.” 

“One of those champions that emerged at that time was Crystal McMillan, who for many of us in this room is a hero.  She was a local businesswoman, very well known throughout the community in Ucluelet, and she watched a CO shoot a bear in her backyard.” 

“She showed up at my office and said, Give me everything you have about starting community programs and also about bear ecology. I gave her two full cardboard boxes and she called me in two weeks.  She had finished going through everything.”

“From that point on, she was on a mission and as it turned out, that was a mission that she followed right to the end of her life.  Sadly, she died just a few years ago from cancer, but boy, did she ever have an impact?  Her Bear Aware group was so effective. She worked with the local government, the town planners and  the business community. Crystal really got things going. She was a bit of a force of nature, in terms of communication skills.” 

“After several years,  Ucluelet was in the running to be named the first certified bear  smart community in BC. It is a brand new program.  Along the way the group ran out of money.  I was contributing some money from my budget. The CEO’s service was contributing money, but her program had grown so much.  She wanted to do so much more. So in typical Crystal, she saw a movie called Calendar Girls and  said, we can do that. So she did.”

Bob Hansen: “The mayor is in this photo. The publisher and reporter of the local paper, a Parks and Rec Director is there, two local biologists, a park warden, a park ecologist  and the photographer who is now Ucluelet’s Mayor. This was another home run. She raised $20,000 and this was in the early 2000s. wjhen that was a lot of money.  All the local businesses had advertisements and every page of the calendar was just chock-a-block with information on how to prevent conflicts with bears.” 

“I said, ‘no way was I going to pose,’ but Crystal was a bit of a force in nature. For my month, I was sitting in a big galvanized washtub in a campsite reading the Bare Campsite pamphlet.”

Some in the audience at LInnaea yelled out: “Where is that picture?” (That sparked a round of conversation and laughter)  

Bob Hansen: “I gave you the file so you can find it!” 

“All of the work she was doing was getting recognized and it was really serving as a model for other communities. Crystal received a Premier’s Award.” 

“She insisted that all of her partners and collaborators also be recognized.”

In the written version of the story there is a picture of them with Premier Gordon Campbell. Another one of Leader Mense’s mentors, Conservation Officer Ben York, is in the far right.

In the next segment of this story Bob Hansen and Todd Windle talk about a sudden influx of wolves and cougars into the Pacific Rim community and how this appears to be an unexpected consequence of modern forestry methods.

Links of Interest:

Top image credit: Long Beach – Roy L Hales photo

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