BEAR UPDATE: Whistler black bears need to be tolerated not pushed away.
By Michael Allen
Black Bear Researcher
I was not available to attend the Non-lethal Bear Management Workshop hosted by the Resort Municipality of Whistler on Oct. 27, 1999. Rather, I was committed to continue tracking ski area black bears to their dens. When the first snowfalls arrive I have to take advantage of this brief window of opportunity to determine when and where bears will spend the winter.
I do, however, have a few concerns regarding the concept of non-lethal bear management in Whistler. First, I am not experienced in bear management methods when it comes to directly handling bears over conflicts with people. My experience is in the behaviour, activity, habitat use and population ecology of black bears living near people. I collect data free of bias towards people and bears. My goal is to determine how black bears adapt to a rapidly changing environment and to educate people on these adaptations.
The push towards employing non-lethal bear management techniques such as aggressive dominance over bears, pepper sprays, bear bangers, rubber bullets, etc. stems from an outcry over the numbers of black bears destroyed in Whistler. Non-lethal techniques used this year have lowered the numbers of bears killed in Whistler, but did they address the root of the problem. The number of bears destroyed is not directly the problem, nor is the role of Conservation and RCMP officers responding to calls of bear complaints. These officers are responding to the potential threat to public safety.
The problem is bear complaints. People complain about bears primarily because they do not understand bear behaviour and when you don’t understand something you tend to fear it, overreact to it, or avoid it if you can. I am more concerned about the annual increase in bear complaints than the number of bears killed each year in Whistler because the latter is the product of the first. Increases in bear complaints each year indicate there is little toleration and understanding for the Whistler black bear, which does not support a positive outlook.
Whistler black bears need to be tolerated not pushed away. Bears must be tolerated if they are feeding on natural foods and deterred if attempting to feed on man-made foods. Non-lethal techniques are useful when, and only when, bears are actually approaching some source of man-made attractant. The major concern I have is that a massive program to deter bears from within residential communities will disrupt their access to natural foods throughout the valley.
Also, when you attempt to scare a bear away, where exactly do you hope to scare it to when the valley is bear habitat? Bears are in the valley for one main reason. Valley residential communities support some of the best, reliable natural food for bears in the Whistler area. The berries in the valley ripen every year versus the mid-high elevation berries which delay or fail due to extreme weather fluctuations. Bears respond to these summer-fall losses of key berries by either remaining in or moving to the valley where berry shrubs do not experience such drastic failures. If bears are going to successfully survive winters and pregnancies they need access to valley berries which are close to people.
From 1993 to 1999, 80 per cent of 5,000 observations of bear activity in Whistler valley revealed bears searching primarily for natural food. If garbage is accessible most bears will attempt to eat it. So why, if a bear is adapting his behaviour to forage closer to people to get these berries, should he be chased away based on the assessment that he has lost his fear of humans and is dangerous? Bears have exhibited nothing but toleration in Whistler with little aggressiveness and no physical injuries toward people. It is likely the bear that is habituated to people but not conditioned to garbage that will survive the next decade.
The RMOW have made moves to better bear-people relationships with bear-proof containers in the village, new bylaws for mandatory outside bear proof containers and funding for school bear education presentations. Education programs must continue each season, every year. Comprehensive workshops are needed for locals and visitors. Currently, it seems non-lethal bear management action outweighs education and that should not be the case. Non-lethal bear management is reactive — you are waiting for the conflict to happen. Education and garbage management is proactive — you are attacking the factors which create the conflict.
Bear Update columns are sponsored by Whistler-Blackcomb and Pique Newsmagazine. Anyone with questions or information about black bears may contact me at 935-1176.