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Monitoring program launched.

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Six coyotes, three bobcats, two bears, four skunks, 13 deer and tenths of racoons.

Over the past 10 years, that’s the reported death toll for Highway 99 as it cuts through Squamish. It’s also an estimate, said Leonard Sielecki, B.C.’s Ministry of Transport’s wildlife and environmental issues specialist. Some road kill isn’t phoned in and other animals may be hit on the highway but make it into the forest only to die later. Smaller animals simply disappear.

“In a course of a couple of hours, they can be completely obliterated,” Sielecki said.

Encouraged by local environmental organizations, this summer the ministry is set to take a closer look at animal crossings along the Sea to Sky Highway.

“We are setting up a monitoring program,” Sielecki said.

Not only is the ministry concerned about the safety of wildlife, but also that of motorists, he explained. Especially in the summer months, “bear jams” are common along Highway 99 as people stop to take pictures or watch the large animals, Sielecki said, noting some people even feed them. The sudden traffic jams are dangerous to oncoming drivers.

The ministry plans to set up cameras in green spaces along the highway to study where animals are crossing and/or grazing.

“We are going to try and run the program as long as we can,” Sielecki said.

Partly due to the late snow melt this year, the ministry noted a large increase in the number of bears foraging for food near the highway. In an attempt to ease “bear jams,” the province implemented vegetation screening at Culliton Creek Bridge. The area was designated a high hazard zone because of the number of bears munching on the grassy slope beside the orange bridge.

Last spring, “Caution bears” signs were also erected at the entrance and exit to Squamish. The signs, which include “Do not feed bears” warnings, were initiated by the Get Bear Smart Society and Bear Aware Community co-ordinator Meg Toom.

The west side of Squamish includes a large industrial track, which makes it difficult to develop greenways across the valley, Sielecki said. The ministry has constructed wildlife underpasses and overpasses on some of its B.C. highways. However, they are expensive and the ramps must be flanked by provincial land.

“If we put in a passage structure and it ends on private property, somebody could put up a wall,” Sielecki said.

Wildlife currently seem to be using routes beside the Squamish Adventure Centre and adjacent to Centennial Way, said Toom.

“There seems to be a fair number struck on that stretch of the highway,” she said.

The concrete barriers in the middle of the highway present a threat to bears, Toom noted. While animals such as deer and elk can easily see over them, bears’ vision is lower to the ground, forcing them to blindly stumble into oncoming traffic.

The solution to minimizing vehicle and wildlife conflict is multi-faceted, she said. With the ministry, District of Squamish, conservation officers, RCMP and environmental groups working together, Toom said the community is moving in the right direction.

“We got their attention and they are looking at things,” she said.

The Chief Newspaper