Building bear smart communities

December 21, 2012
Raina Delisle


After seeing a bear killed in a residential area of Ucluelet, B.C., Crystal McMillan knew she had to do something to make communities safer for bears and people.

“I was just walking home with groceries and the bear was making a sound like a human bawling,” she recalls. “I heard the sound and I saw the bear and I saw the blood and then I saw the shots fired. It affected me to the core.”

After the incident, McMillan – who now works out of Columbia Beach, B.C. – launched Bear Smart BC Consulting in 2004. In partnership with all levels of government, non-government organizations and other stakeholders, she is working to build a bear smart province by engaging communities one by one.

“Since that day (the bear was killed), I realized that taking the avenue of strong bear advocacy is not effective,” she says. “You have to build those essential, integral partnerships with governments and residents, and reach out locally. We need to engage everyone in solving this problem. It’s been a social science for me from the get-go.”

McMillan’s desire to get to the core of that social science and further develop her leadership skills, led her to Royal Roads University’s MA in Leadership program in 2008. Her RRU experience was “absolutely, amazingly fabulous,” she says. Much of what she learned she applies daily in her consulting work and her textbooks are always within close reach in her office.

Next year, McMillan will reconnect with the university as a sponsor organization for the Leadership Challenge. She will present students with a leadership challenge she is facing and they will work for a week on a solution. McMillan will walk away with eight proposals to consider.

School of Leadership Prof. Catherine Etmanski says McMillan’s work represents the best of what the school teaches in terms of systems thinking, the process of understanding how our actions influence the systems in which we operate, including human actions in ecosystems. “Crystal has incredible energy for this project,” Etmanski says. “Her passion is going to make a difference for human-bear relations.”  

That passion took McMillan to New Delhi, India, last month where she presented her RRU thesis at the International Bear Association Conference. Her research paper was sponsored by the Ministry of Environment Conservation Officer Service and was a sociological evaluation of the leadership issues faced by all levels of government and non-governmental organizations in implementing the B.C. government’s Bear Smart Community program. The program is based on a series of criteria that communities must achieve in order to be recognized as being “bear smart.” While McMillan’s consultancy has a similar name, her business is independent of the government.

To become bear smart, municipalities have to complete a set of criteria and they often need guidance and mentoring. For example, they have to do a hazard assessment and have a full understanding of how the bears are using the habitat. This is where McMillan comes in as a consultant. She wants to help communities become more invested in creating bear smart communities and get away from thinking conservation is someone else’s problem. “It’s really hard to create that paradigm shift in thinking,” she says. “There are so many local governments who think conservation officers will take the bear away to some fairyland or just destroy it.”

Annually, the province receives about 18,000 public complaints and destroys an average of 1,600 black bears and 40 grizzlies because of human-bear conflict. Public education unique to every community is one thing McMillan believes can help. “Every resident is the very first wildlife manager of any animal that comes in,” she says. “Whether you feed deer or don’t manage your attractants for bears, that’s where the problem ignites.”

Despite the fact that she faces many hurdles in her work, McMillan is motivated by her love for wildlife, challenge and the well-being of communities.

“I grabbed onto this because it’s just so interesting and such a big challenge for me. It continues to be a passion. I eat, sleep and breathe it,” she says. “I want to see public safety and I want to see people responsible for their actions with regard to wildlife. Working on something where you actually have people’s lives or animals’ lives on the line is so rewarding and so challenging.”

While seeing the bear killed will always haunt McMillan, she’s also had some positive experiences with bears.

“I have seen them in nature and to see a bear that doesn’t show behaviour of ever having seen a human being before is the most blessed thing you can ever see,” she says. “I don’t really want to see them, because I know the moment that I see them, I’ve made an impact that could become detrimental to their well-being.”