Negative reinforcement could control bear behavior

Bears are attracted to food, but negative reinforcement may teach them they are going to get a bad time if they stray from their homes.

If bears are conditioned to come into residential neighbourhoods by food, negative reinforcement may teach them they are going to get a bad time whenever they stray from their proper place in the wild.

The Whistler RCMP detachment is called to deal with a bear on approximately a weekly basis, and Sgt. Eric Rochette explained their “hazing” policy.

Every police cruiser in Whistler is equipped with a bear kit, which includes a handgun that looks like a starter pistol, but can be used to fire bear bangers and screechers. In most cases, the loud noise will frighten a bear away.

Next, officers can escalate to bean bag guns, or rubber bullets, which are fired out of a shotgun. The rubber bullets can actually be lethal at close range, or easily cause serious injury to the animal, and officers are trained in what is a safe distance to use this method. These more punitive actions virtually always result in the bear running away.

Bears are territorial, and will sometimes return to a neighbourhood despite police hazing. When they do, the Conservation Officer Service will attempt to trap and relocate the bears.

If a bear must be put down, and Rochette clarified that is always a last resort, the officer will use a shotgun loaded with slugs. Rochette said with this weapon it is possible to humanely kill a bear with one shot.

That was necessary after a bear swatted a 55-year-old man sitting in his hot tub in Whistler on June 3, causing injury.

It is unknown what caused the attack, which made headlines across the country, but Bear Aware officials noted that hot tub covers give off a scent that is similar to an ant’s nest. That may be what brought the bear into the man’s yard.

Shooting bears can be controversial, but Rochette said the people of Whistler realize their police force has a game plan for dealing with these animals.

“People will have questions, but the officers are well trained here,” he said.