The $25,000 electric fence installed around Hay River’s solid waste facility last month will result in a decrease in the local bear population within a year, according to Albert Bourque, a wildlife officer with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
“The same kind of fence was put up in Yellowknife in 2000,” he told The Hub. “We went from over 300 bear calls at the dump in 1999 to a handful the following year.”
The Hay River fence, which runs just under 2.5 kilometres around the dump, is designed to emit a strong electrical pulse every quarter-second.
Bourque explained that bears explore first and foremost with their sense of smell, and a shot to the nose from the fence is enough to discourage them without wounding them permanently.
“There are thousands of installations like this across North America,” he said. “They’ve worked there and it will work here.”
The problems with bears at the dump are twofold, but Bourque said it all comes down to a question of safety. The easy access to massive amounts of food allows the population to swell to much more than the area can reasonably sustain, and that results in more bears being packed into a small territory. Bourque explained it’s not the dominant males that cause problems with people, rather it’s the adolescent ones looking to stake out a spot for themselves.
Furthermore, the bears that frequent the dump often injure themselves on what they find there and are in poor health from the steady diet of garbage. Bourque described bears with wounded tongues and perforated intestines as a result of eating from cans, along with other symptoms of poor nutrition, like rotten teeth.
“It’s pretty well understood that when an animal is sick, it’s in survival mode and at its most dangerous,” he said. “Combine that with the sick bears associating the smell of humans with food and you have a very dangerous situation.”
The South Slave, particularly the river corridors, is prime bear habitat. There are a multitude of things for them to eat, including berries, vegetation, fish and frogs. Bourque said that, as long as people are being smart about their garbage, the chances of a bear becoming a nuisance are very low, increasingly so as the population dwindles as a result of the easy food source being blocked off.
But some residents do not share Bourque’s optimism about the new fence.
Joanne Barnaby told The Hub the number of bears crossing her Riverwoods property has increased in the weeks since the fence was installed and that she and her neighbours are concerned with them coming in search of food.
“It’s completely unnecessary,” she said of the fence. “The rationale was to protect people from bears, but there have been no problems at all between bears and people at the dump.”
Barnaby is also anxious about the animals’ safety with regards to the fence as she said it is only a matter of time before they start getting through.
Those concerns have also sparked conversation about the placement of the dump itself.
“I don’t understand why the dump is by the river,” Barnaby said. “In the past, I guess there was less awareness of things like leeching, but we shouldn’t be expanding it there. We should move it instead.”
She said she has been hearing a lot of positive feedback on this suggestion and plans to launch a petition to town council in the near future.
The Town of Hay River conducted a study in 2010 on the remaining lifespan of the solid waste facility, which indicated it would be sufficient for another decade. However, Dustin Dewar, a civil technologist with the town’s department of public works, said the municipality has taken steps to extend the life of the facility in order to properly plan, finance and build a new one.
“The Town of Hay River has exported over 485 tones of scrap steel, 1,250 litres of household hazardous waste, and sold over 100 composters, which have the potential to divert 23 tons of organic waste from entering the landfill,” he said. “The town has also taken the initiative to remove electronic waste from entering the landfill.”
Dewar estimates the cost of a new solid waste facility would run somewhere between $20-$26 million, not including remediation of the current site.
— Sarah Ladik