Bear Update: Bear space 

Bear Researcher

On a warm, late August afternoon we ascend the dusty access roads of the Whistler-Blackcomb ski area. The Suburban is filled with people eager to experience black bears in one way or another. Since 2000, some 1,400 people have accompanied me into the maze of high quality environs that this world-class alpine ski area has to offer the local bear population.

Questions begin: How close can we get? How many bears live here? What are they eating? How long do cubs stay with their mother? Do they come out in the winter? For me, bear viewing has sparked the key to unlocking a very effective direction in bear education. Participants arrive from all corners of the world – Alaska, Africa, Germany, Britain, Netherlands, South America, United States, and Canada. These bear tours offer high quality education – seeing, experiencing, and interpreting bear behaviour in bear habitat. Everyone wants to see a bear in their own environment doing bear things and that in itself sparks underlying interest in what a bear’s life is really like.

You would be surprised at the number of people that don’t bring cameras or have never seen a bear before. Many clients participate for experience and understanding, possibly in an attempt to reconcile fears or misconceptions about bear behaviour.

All bears have different personalities that may be represented by "bear space" or the individual distance that a bear tolerates to stimuli within its environment – some rewarding, some threatening, and some questionable. Within these distances bears interpret rewards, threats, and/or hold judgement for further sensory interpretation.

Bear space may range 10 metres (30 feet) to 100 metres (300 feet). You really cannot tell, that’s why always maintaining a safe distance (maximum) from bears is important.

One of the successes of ski area bear viewing is that based on a decade of field studies I can confidently predict which bear a group may approach and who to leave be. Bear space is defined throughout the bear’s life from experience and is never constant. Certain attributes help define bear space – sex, age, habitat type, season, and experience (i.e., with people and other bears).

Male and female bears have very different roles in the population. Females are producers and caregivers occupying small territories maintained through toleration, avoidance, scent-marking, and chasing (rarely fighting with neighbouring females). Males present dominance and genes into a population over a wide ranging area (of females). Females are more likely to become habituated or accustomed to humans and disturbance because they have the responsibility of cub-rearing and are limited in their movements. Males move freely and have more options (for habitat use) if disturbed by people.

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