Bear Update: Understanding our garbage problem 

Bears have been emerging in Whistler since mid-March. A combination of weight gain (fall) and loss (spring), body rhythms, and changing ambient conditions (snow-pack, daylight, temperature, barometric pressure) contribute to triggering bear emergence.

During their first two weeks out of the den bears remain lethargic, with little appetite. Because a bear does not feed during winter, their stomach is non-functioning and shrivels. To get the digestive tract working again, ingestion is limited to small quantities of food. Skunk cabbage and pussy willows are the first natural bear foods while snow still covers the ground, followed by horsetail, grass, clover, and dandelions as the snow melts.

The main window of emergence for males is mid-March through April, and for females, mid-April through May. I saw my first bear tracks in Whistler Valley on Feb. 26 while on a bear den field trip with the Outdoor Leadership class from Don Ross Secondary. On March 21, I began seeing tracks and bears on daybeds around all three golf courses. As of April 20 at least 11 bears are active and by June, I’m expecting at least 33 resident adult bears (14 M, 19 F) for the Whistler area.

In spring bears begin to reinforce their behaviours for the season. Wariness and human-habituation are not constant modes for bears. Experience with people, other bears, natural- and non-natural food rewards, and day-to-day experiences shape bear personality and strategy.

Often — particularly at the start of each year — we are not consciously aware that we are “teaching” bears by how we live and manage our attractants. Bird feeders (in addition to garbage and recycling) are one of the worst attractants in spring that trigger toleration of people from reinforcement of high calories. If a bear gets a full feeder of suet, peanuts, seeds, and raisins, that’s over 2,000 calories (as opposed to one mouthful of big black huckleberries at 100 calories), so you see why bird feeders are favoured in fall and spring.

Most feeders are hung close to houses, which teach bears to overcome their natural wariness of human scent, sounds, and physical surroundings (buildings). The payoff is a rich food source.

Initially, a bear is more likely to visit your feeder (or garbage storage) during early mornings or late evenings, when human activity is lower. As the season progresses, and if no negative consequences occur, the bear will ultimately map this location in his head as a reliable food source. Golf courses and ski trails are prime examples of how, at the population level, bears are “taught” (indirectly) to habituate openings with human activity and staple food sources.

The worst “expression of learning” we offer bears is the reward of edible garbage. Whistler’s bear population can be described in a two-part statement: A heavy population of habituated black bears exists because of increased food supply through recreational development, and a trend of garbage-seeking behaviours exists because of unchecked access to non-natural foods over the last 40 years.

It’s nearly impossible to stop bears from grazing on golf courses, ski trails, and recreational pathways, but it’s unchecked garbage access that is killing our juvenile bears, and that must be tackled and managed.

Garbage management in Whistler needs to change to promote human safety in bear habitat and reduce reinforced garbage-seeking behaviours of multi-generations of bears. You have to approach this problem with the acceptance that we will never be able to keep bears out of Whistler valley — natural food sources are too plentiful and the lure of high-calorie garbage will always exist, especially in seasons of natural food shortages.

But, we can significantly shift garbage-seeking behaviours away from houses (and improve safety) to centralized bear-proof containers where 1) frequent, unchecked garbage access is reduced and 2) garbage overflow and availability is better managed (than at individual households) and 3) conservation officers and residents can better visualize bear activity when asked to report and respond (better than in backyards, for instance).

The end result would be to begin a shift in the search pattern of bears seeking garbage, from Whistler homes to “better managed” centralized locations. Over time, bears will learn to search for garbage at centralized garbage containment sites that are managed in a proactive rather than reactive manner.

Whistler is wilderness… with a huge black bear population. We must adopt the mindset to change garbage management, to ensure a healthier future for human-bear relationships.

Anyone with questions can reach me at 604-698-6709 or e-mail mallen_coastbear@direct.ca

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