Bear Update: 

School bear program in ninth year

Bear Researcher

Whistler Black Bear Project

Whistler students might just be the smartest kids in British Columbia when it comes to black bears. Since 1997 I have spent a minimum of 20,000 hours (450 presentations) talking to 8,500 students (K-7) about the intriguing lives of black bears. The Whistler Community School Bear Education Program/BEP has one goal in mind: to set the stage for a new generation compassionate to bear conservation and the environment. A goal I think, fitting for Whistler’s sustainable future.

An obvious outcome to this program (that all bear people share) is to reduce human-bear conflict through better understanding. Understanding the needs of bears, in a dynamic environment of human needs, takes, some different approaches than brochures and public safety announcements. While the latter are necessary and useful, I wanted to take outreach further and reach the open-minds of students and show them what it’s like to live a bear’s life – the rewards, the tragedies; correct the misconceptions and shape the biological hurdles bears overcome to survive.

Bears are wonderful indicators of ecosystem stability and can and should be used to raise issues in the environment through links to salmon, berries, old growth trees, climate change, water conservation, insects and forest fire ecology, timber harvest and silviculture, urban sprawl, and recreational development.

In the Whistler Community School BEP, two components of classroom bear awareness are delivered: spring awareness (March-May) when bears emerge from winter dens and typically descend to low elevation habitats near or within residential and parkland areas, and fall awareness (September-October) as students return from summer break and bear activity traditionally peaks throughout residential communities as bears search for enhanced natural and/or non-natural foods to gain weight for winter.

The program is repetitive, with progressive information corresponding to the dynamic lives of local and regional black bears. Classroom presentations address bear behaviour, biology, seasonal ecology, human food attractant use, and safety (communication with bears) during sightings and encounters.

Consistent outreach fed by ongoing intensive research stimulates long-term interest. Local kids got to know local bears. We discuss the habits of resident mothers, updates on current offspring and progress of past offspring. Kids followed the annual life patterns of known bears. A large inventory of physical bear artifacts (skulls, teeth, skeleton, hide, paws and claws, and heart) allowed students to interpret physical anatomy and biology. This fall, a cub and adult male bear skeleton will be reconstructed for display at the B.C. Science Teachers Conference next spring in Whistler.

From personality differences to feeding strategies and population status, kids from kindergarten to Grade 7 grew up listening to the "soap opera" of Whistler bear life. They would ask how Marisa’s leg was doing or if Katie lost too much weight because of the poor berry crop – would she still produce cubs? Or why does Jeanie enter the valley and Katie not? Why was Slim so aggressive and Slumber not? And how will the other bears know Slim is gone? How will they react? What this knowledge promotes is an understanding of another species lifestyle and ecological relationships – Is it too hot for bears? What kind of berry crop is to be expected for the fall? Which cover types do bears prefer for bedding cover? Will bears abandon dens if the snow pack is too low? How do bears use travel corridors? Many of these questions were answered and built upon during the Lost Lake Bear Habitat Map project sponsored by the Community Foundation of Whistler.

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