Cleaning up their act

Government and industry pledge to make the oilsands safe(r) for black bears

I get tired of writing scathing columns about the incompetence and nonfeasance of industry and government. There’s much to write about to be sure and the public needs to know about it but it’s depressing to catalogue the growing litany of failures to protect Alberta’s amazing natural heritage as we aspire like King Midas to turn everything we touch into inert gold. So when I was invited by the Oil Sands Developers Group (OSDG) to attend a workshop in Fort McMurray on how to prevent the Great Canadian Oil Sands Black Bear Massacre from ever happening again I jumped at the chance. (Full disclosure: OSDG paid my way.)

OSDG’s Ken Chapman invited me he said because he wanted the industry to be more transparent about its failures and successes. Normally these government-industry powwows are closed affairs but they knew I had written a scathing article about the 145 black bears that had been killed in the oilsands region last year and they wanted me to be there to see for myself how they planned to make their facilities less of a threat to black bears.

I was shocked by what I heard in ways that may surprise you.

On the plane to Fort McMurray I pored over the province’s black bear management plan which was last updated 19 years ago. Turns out this is not a new problem. Between 1973 and 1990 6917 so-called “nuisance” black bears were killed across the province an annual average of 310 — twice as many as were killed in the oilsands region last year. During the same period the northeast region of Alberta was the provincial hot spot recording 4011 complaints of trouble-causing bears 38 per cent of the provincial total.

Cold Lake and Fort McMurray have been creating nuisance black bears for more than a decade and the trends in northeast Alberta have been worsening since 2008. In 2010 for instance there were 285 occurrences of “nuisance” black bears and 91 bears were “handled” by Alberta Fish and Wildlife. In 2011 the number of occurrences had almost doubled to 530 and the number of black bears that had to be handled rose to 234 almost triple the amount of the year before. Of those 154 bears were killed 74 at camps for workers. Another 89 were relocated.

The number of conflicts are related to the amount of natural food available. When natural food sources are low because of unseasonably cold or wet spring weather for instance bears are forced to seek out other food sources. And the increasing numbers of people and unnatural bear attractants (namely garbage) means more traps for hungry bears to walk into.

“Compared to Banff and Canmore this kind of management is archaic” said one Alberta Fish and Wildlife officer who asked to remain anonymous. “I don’t know anywhere else in North America you’d have these kinds of numbers.”

What is even more incredible is that despite these numbers Alberta Fish and Wildlife has never issued a formal attractant order to a camp or oilsands operators which compels camps or communities to clean up their act or go to court and receive a fine.

It’s clear that camps and industrial facilities have done a horrible job of securing garbage and other attractants so bears can’t access them. I heard story after story of people approaching bears and feeding bears of bears in trailers and buildings of dumpsters full of garbage being left open and available to visiting bears — even of people intentionally leaving the lids of supposedly bear-proof garbage bins open so they could watch doomed bears combing through leftovers for breakfast. Fish and Wildlife officers would give these recidivists verbal warnings about the need to clean up their act but when they returned a week or two later ineffective garbage bins hadn’t been replaced and the lids of bear-proof bins were still wide open. This has created generations of habituated and food-conditioned bears who will continue to hang out around camps and facilities until such bear attractants are eliminated.

It’s not just a bear safety issue it’s a public safety issue. While it’s rare every once in a while a bear too comfortable around people will attack. A few years ago at a Halliburton hydrocarbon project in northeast B.C. a man was killed and partially consumed by a food-conditioned black bear that had been hanging around the facility supping on unsecured garbage. An employee stepped out to take a leak and the hungry bear took him into the bushes to dine on him.

“People are the problem not the bears” said the same anonymous Fish and Wildlife officer. “The response we often hear is that the bears are the problem that they shouldn’t be here. But bears can’t and don’t respond. They’re survivalists; they’re just feeding and eating. There’s a lot more we can do and we’re not.”

The biggest surprise was how much the 60 or so people in the room seemed to care about the lives of black bears not just as a population but as individuals. As we watched pictures and videos of bears climbing through dumps and into dumpsters and bears getting shot and hauled away I heard gasps from the crowd. One voice from the back of the room said “It seems wrong that we’re occupying their space and then we kill them. Isn’t there a better method?”

There is.

Several companies presented on how they were aspiring to do better and Devon seems to have set the high bar. Last year one black bear had to be euthanized near its Pike SAGD plant and camp so Devon spent $230000 to build an eight-foot electrified fence around the facilities. The company has installed bear-proof bins and secure food lockers removed natural bear foods in the area and installed cameras to keep track of bears in the area. All employees must now be trained in bear safety protocols and take a test to ensure they know the rules. The security staff have been trained to conduct thorough and consistent aversive conditioning on habituated bears.

It remains to be seen whether the goodwill and enhancements will be enough. The solution can’t be piecemeal. Every facility camp and community must be made bear-proof. If some camps and facilities don’t do their part habituated and food-conditioned bears will find them and the problem will continue. Industry needs to take the prevention of human-bear conflicts as seriously as it does workplace safety. If you break the rules you get a warning. If you ignore them you are “sent down the road” forsaking the benefits of your well-paying job because you refuse to take the life of a black bear (or a fox or a coyote or a raven) seriously.

The Alberta government has always been reluctant to regulate industry but it needs to play a more heavy-handed role. The necessary legislation and regulations are already in place but it’s clear they have been ignored for decades. What’s needed are adequate resources to monitor compliance and enforce the rules when they are ignored. On that score the Alberta government has responded by adding two more inspectors and two more fish and wildlife officers essentially quadrupling the number of personnel working on the issue. If companies fail to comply they should be fined and their misdeeds broadcast to the public. And if that doesn’t work they need to be shut down until they’re ready to follow the rules.

The black bear issue is a microcosm for the management of oilsands development writ large. Relative to reclaiming tailings ponds and other issues preventing the unnecessary deaths of black bears is a relatively simple and inexpensive matter. If government and industry can’t get that right it’s unlikely they’ll be able to solve the other more complex problems before them.

In any event we’ll be watching to see if they do the right thing.