A portrait of Whistler and its bears
Michael Allen’s black bear research goes a long way toward telling us how well we are co-existing with nature
By Amy Fendley
He arrived unannounced. Standing in the office of the Blackcomb Mountain manager. He was a young, stocky, spiky-haired kid who walked in and said, "I’d like to study bears on the mountain."
Arthur DeJong, who was the mountain manager at the time replied, "Sure, go ahead."
Michael Allen turned to walk away. As he was nearly out the door, DeJong asked him if he had any prior material showing that he’d studied bears. Allen grinned and pulled out an album full of bear mug shots.
DeJong, immediately impressed and intrigued, commented, "Wow, what size telephoto do you use for these shots?"
"I don’t use one," said Allen.
Today, Allen, 34, heads a one-man black bear research team. He has dedicated his life to his work. Allen generally keeps quiet, is seemingly shy and intensely devoted. He bares a slight resemblance in demeanour to his research subjects and not unlike them, prefers to keep a low profile.
Having monitored 84 black bear dens since 1993, he is an asset to the community which since his arrival has benefited substantially from his knowledge.
"Gotta’ remember not to pick my nose," remarks Allen quietly, half-smiling as he makes his way down a steep slope through the fog. He reappears minutes later in front of the camera. He is parka-bound and no longer camera-shy.
Following directions from camera-man Jeff Turner, Allen turns his back to the camera and heads across a clearing to the edge of a slope-side forest.
"OK, now just look into the bush like your scoping for Hali’s den," directs Turner. "Great, now start to head over this way and walk right past the camera."
Turner and his wife Sue, from Princeton, B.C. have been making nature films for 13 years, first for the CBC’s The Nature of Things and now for the BBC. Their latest project is a documentary featuring Allen and his research subjects, black bears.
Of all the places the Turners could have gone in North America to film, they chose Whistler. They considered Michigan and Minnesota, where there were two bear study scenarios as options. That was, Turner says, "Until we stumbled upon Michael and his black bears."
It was a story in The Province newspaper that tipped off the BBC. That’s how they found him. A story about Allen and his relationship with bears — how they slept on him and how cubs climbed on him.
"Last summer we called him up to see if he was for real and when we found out that he was, we arranged to meet with him," said Turner, who while moving between shoot locations, has now parked his blue 4x4 pickup to put chains on the tires. "We spent three days with Allen and decided we should film right here. What worked so well was the ski slopes. An open habitat, yet forested so it provided a chance to get a good look at natural bear behaviour.
"The ski hill environment is artificial, in that it mimics a natural opening in the forest. The key element was that Allen knew 30 to 50 bears in the area, by name," said Turner. "Other researchers we talked to had only one bear and used food as a lure. There were so many resources in this situation that we had to draw on."
In the fall of 1997, the BBC hired Allen as a scientific advisor to research specific den locations. Turner began filming last March. He and Allen concluded it would be necessary to dedicate a year and more than $500,000 to filming the documentary, a tedious project that in another four months will be whittled down to 50 minutes of quality television.
Weeks away from the completion of the filming, Turner felt confident that "lots of good stuff" would be included in the final product.
"Film is a means of storytelling, and this one is about black bears, with more of a human component... trying to get people to understand the animal. If you can use a person to facilitate this, it allows a way in for people, increasing the ability to explain an animal to the audience.
"Not many people we’ve ever worked with have the degree of relationship and profound understanding of animals as he does," says Turner. "And we’ve worked with a lot of researchers who have tremendous knowledge of animals, but I don’t think I’ve met anyone quite like Allen."
Whistler’s black bears are continually in a situation where there are humans involved and the BBC decided to make this the focus of part of the film. The rest, is an educational peep-show into the lives of black bears.
"We’ve got footage of mothers and cubs, which hasn’t been done in most bear films," exclaims Turner. "And mating scenes, although a lot of that stuff was way too graphic.
"Allen does his thing and we follow him. This story is about black bears. The way we film a project is through the animal’s eyes — the bears are the stars of the show.
"Allen knows where the bears are and you can’t make a film if you don’t know where the animals are," Turner says. "We’re following him and he’s following them, watching their behaviour and how they make their way through a year."
In a conversation after the snowy shoot, Allen reveals a few of his ambitions while hinting at a few things that annoy him about his role, or lack thereof, in the preservation of Whistler’s black bear population.
"Right now I’m focusing on field research and bear education in schools. Since 1995 DeJong (current mountain planning and environmental resource manager) and Whistler-Blackcomb have supported me," says Allen. "They’ve got good initiatives and are good to work with. The ski hill is an outdoor classroom.
"In 1996 and ’97, the Jennifer Jones Foundation sponsored me, but this year I’ve only had two sponsors — Whistler-Blackcomb and the BBC. The municipality has not been as responsive as I would have liked."
Allen is regretful that he is not more active with the various bear-interest groups in the community, as the information he’s obtained through his research could, he feels, be put to use to benefit numerous black bear-management initiatives. But there lies the problem. Allen doesn’t have his degree and because he is unqualified on paper, his efforts have been little more than ignored by some key municipal players.
In the past, the Jennifer Jones Foundation and the Black Bear Task Force sponsored Allen, helping to fund his research and educational talks. In return, he provided them with information to assist with various bear management strategies, such as bear-proofing, signs, and the installation of bear-proof bins.
Through Coast Mountain Black Bear Resources, Allen has made it clear that his primary business is black bear research, interpretation and education.
"We’re trying not to ruffle any feathers. Bears are a political animal. The BBC wanted another bear film," said Turner. "We considered doing a film about bears around the world, or North American grizzlies, but a researcher at the BBC found that very few films had been done on black bears.
"Both the municipality and Whistler-Blackcomb have been tremendous in allowing us access around here," he said. "We’re a small scale production team, not here for a long time and just to observe and film, not to get in the way of what happens here."
Turner says that it’s always different doing projects in wild places and lays innocent claim to the theory that Whistler is not a "normal" town, but a resort community.
"One thing that attracted us to this place was that the town was seeming to make an effort with regards to the bear situation. AWARE and the Black Bear Task Force and the way they promote awareness in newspapers and on the radio," says Turner. "In the community I live in, there were 140 bears shot this year and nobody knows about it. In 1998, there were 15 bears shot here and a couple relocations, and this is certainly not a story element that we’re going to ignore because it’s a fact of life for these bears. Allen knows these animals extremely well and knows things people don’t want to hear."
Allen claims that if it wasn’t for DeJong’s open mind and responsiveness, past, present and future, there would be no ski resort black bear research.
"There have been studies done, but no other ski resort has gone into the bear thing like we have," says Allen. "He’s opened the door for me. If DeJong hadn’t been there, there would be no research in Whistler. I would be doing rag-tag research on my own."
For his knowledge on how to design bear-friendly ski runs, DeJong credits Allen, whom he has been working closely with for the past five years.
"He appreciates recreation and has an understanding about what a resort is, that it’s not meant to be a Serengeti," he says. "Mike understands that and we’re able to find a balance. He is an intricate part of the mountain’s environmental planning team and without him, black bear research in the valley would not be near as advanced. Michael has been the catalyst to raising bear awareness in this resort.
"As a person, he’s one of the gentlest, trust-worthy, sincere, principled, word-is-gold, salt-of-the-earth and no doubt most dedicated persons to an environmental cause in our resort," states DeJong. "It is inspiring to see that level of dedication. He has taken it much further than that, we understand bear behaviour, hibernating rituals not to mention that every bear he studies is named."
Movie star and principle ski area mother, Jeanie, is the subject of a large portion of the film. Her cubs, Willie and Wishbone, received equal camera attention. Sadie, Susie, Heidi, Hazel and daughter Hali are featured, while Marissa, Katie, Hanna, Bart, Cassie and Molly also will have moments of fame.
"We wrapped up the documentary with the first good footage of a black bear sleeping in a den, in the wild," said Allen. "We used a pole with a lipstick camera attached to the end and my head lamp. It was the most exciting thing of my whole year, because it was so different. Normally a bear would be tranquillized to get these type of shots."
At one point, Allen ventured inside the den with the camera. Upon exit he bumped his head, causing his $80 head lamp to fall off and roll unattainably deeper into the sleeping bear’s den. He doesn’t expect to see that lamp again.
Allen studies and records the behaviour and relationships of bears in three Whistler sub-populations, performing annual, systematic counts in order to identify patterns which determine population trends.
It is through bear counts, monitoring families, studying the reproductive fitness of females as well as denning and feeding habits and counting cubs upon their emergence from the den, that Allen is able to draw accurate conclusions.
"Questions about cubs, territory and health patterns can’t just be answered by knowing how many bears are in Whistler," says Allen. "I could slap collars on them, but by watching then in sub-populations I can make conclusions about the population as a whole."
In the winter Allen gets around by snowmobile. In the summer he goes as far as he can by 4X4, then carries on by foot. He carries with him a camera to photographically identify bears, a GPS satellite receiver to record locations of bears, dens or prints in the snow and relies on the guidance of maps, aerial photos and memory to plot where the bears are. He goes about his business fearless and for the most part, silent. With the exception of his commitment to youth.
Allen has educated more than 10,000 students in the past 10 years, on the belief that information is the "key to awareness."
He is currently attending school himself, taking courses through Capilano College to continue to work on a degree in wildlife biology, which he hopes to complete at Simon Fraser University.
He plans to spend another four years in Whistler conducting research to complete his 10 year study — one of the most comprehensive studies to date in Western Canada focusing on the dynamics of black bear populations and ecology.
In addition to the recognition he has received from the BBC, Allen has also been approached by Greater Vancouver Regional District watershed management division to assist with research at the Seymour Demonstration Forest in North Vancouver. The GVRD has shown an interest in his work and has asked him to inventory the habitat of the forest. Allen has also been asked to present slide shows to various groups in Vancouver. His research will be submitted to the Canadian Journal of Zoology and to the International Association for Bear Research and Management and published this spring.
Turner’s documentary will air in England on the BBC and will be aired in the U.S. on the Discovery Channel, but will not make its way onto Canadian airwaves until late next year.
As a community we are challenged to co-exist with bears. If we fail in protecting the black bear, Allen, DeJong, Turner and the BBC agree, it will be a sign of our inability to co-exist with our environment, showing only that we as human beings are not doing what it takes to co-exist with nature.