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There’s something about bears

Changing public perceptions of bears for the better is a key goal of the Whistler-Blackcomb tours

" Universally people are intrigued by bears. We grew up with them as cuddly toys or as images such as Smokey the Bear or as ferocious killers, so the first animal many children identify in the wild is a bear. It is such a misrepresented mammal so hopefully these tours go some way towards changing that." — Arthur DeJong, Whistler Blackcomb.

When most people think of animal tours or safaris, images of khaki-clad tourists bouncing on Jeeps across the dry African plains usually spring to mind.

However a safari of sorts has started up a lot closer to home, and tourists are signing up in droves. For $169, plus tax, anyone can join one of Whistler-Blackcomb’s twice daily bear viewing tours of the ski areas.

While it may seem odd to fork out that kind of cash to see a relatively common animal, one sometimes literally encountered in our own backyards, all sorts of people are doing it, according to Arthur DeJong, Whistler-Blackcomb’s mountain planning & environmental manager.

"Our guest list shows a wide variety of nationalities, especially the UK and Japanese, with Germans making up the majority, probably because the biggest mammal now left in the Alps is the marmot."

The ages of guests also covers the full spectrum, from very young to elderly, and during the first season of tours last year more than 500 guests signed up. DeJong hopes to double that figure this season and he says the current level of steady tour bookings indicates this goal is achievable.

"When people come to Whistler for the first time one of their top priorities is to see a bear, and our guest surveys show this," he says. "These tours let visitors see bears in their natural habitat, as well as learn something about these amazingly adaptive creatures."

Guiding the trips this year are DeJong, environmentalist Stephane Perron, forest ecologist Bob Brett, forester Don MacLaurin and black bear researcher Michael Allen. Together they provide impressive, in-depth knowledge of the flora and fauna that shapes Whistler’s coastal forest and glacial environment. However it is Allen who conducts 90 per cent of the bear tours and who knows Whistler’s bears like no other, having studied them for more than a decade – to the point of even sleeping out next to a mother and cub.

Bears on tour

The call came in to the Pique office. There was a space on Monday’s 6 p.m. tour. Would I care to come along? We met as a group at the bottom of the Wizard Chair on Blackcomb Mountain. With Allen was a couple from the United Kingdom – Maureen and Tony Wear – and a family from Arizona; Kit and Jerry Roth with their young daughter Courtney. Despite a diversity in ages and background, being animal lovers was the first thing they had in common. Maureen sponsors a bear in Idaho as part of a rehabilitation project, and her husband sponsors a tiger. Courtney, apparently has a passion for bears.

After piling in the new truck, we lurched up Whistler Mountain. The conversation was abuzz with questions.

"What do the bears eat? Where do they sleep and when? Are there any cubs around? How long do they stay with their mother? Why are black bears sometimes brown?" Allen answers each question fully and with humour. It doesn’t take long to gain a sense of his wide ranging knowledge of the black bear and his personal mission to help re-educate people and clear up the myths about bears. He walks our group through the high alpine forest to check out some bear dens, stopping to examine recent paw prints in the mud. While evidence of bear activity is all around, the woods seem strangely quiet and devoid of animal life – the only sound being the whistle of wind through the trees and the gurgle of spring creeks swollen with snow-melt.

Bear viewing in Whistler can require patience. The odds are better than say, tornado watching in the US where clients can wait for days in vehicles for the command to race towards an apparent twister. However, the hemlock-cedar forests are not a zoo and there are no guarantees the bears will wander out into the open. Female black bear territories can range up to 10 square kilometres while the wandering males can chalk up distances of more than 100 square kilometres if they are big enough, hungry enough and are following the scent of a female. Nevertheless Whistler’s tours have not failed to hit the jackpot, so far.

"There was one guy that was getting mad because after two hours we hadn’t found a bear, but I think he was just mad at life in general," recalls Allen. "It doesn’t worry me if we don’t find bears straight away. I know it’s just a matter of time. All it takes is a bear to move two feet into the trees and we won’t see him."

It’s an explanation that sits well with this tour party. However the level of anticipation in the truck is electric, with necks craning out the windows and cameras at the ready. The resulting uproar in the vehicle upon the first bear sighting makes Allen jump off his seat.

"You nearly gave me a heart attack," he gasps.

The object of our attention is a glossy male black bear, new to Allen and therefore almost certainly new to the area, undoubtedly lured by the prospect of resident female bears coming into season. After a quick retreat the bear stops and regards us from a distance. He looks unimpressed, despite our "oohs and ahs."

"He might look small from here but he probably weighs a good 300 pounds," Allen explains as the bear continues his departure. "It’s not in a male’s nature to accept our presence like a female would, because he is competitive and wants to be the boss."

Aided by Allen’s announcement that yesterday’s tour saw a record 10 bears, the group is anxious to see more wildlife. We resume driving up and down the roads on Whistler Mountain, passing wild deer and Allen’s bear weighing platform on the way. Twenty minutes later, on the west-facing Dave Murray Downhill run, we strike gold. Jeanie, a 180-pound female is being courted by a 350 pound male black bear who, like his predecessor, is wary of our presence.

"Because he wants to be dominant he normally wouldn’t stay this close but all he’s thinking about is his girlfriend," Allen says, as everyone laughs. "He’s a typical male."

In the golden warmth of the setting sun, the courtship is leisurely, as Jeanie grazes nonchalantly beside her suitor. We sit quietly some 100 metres away, although not too quietly because extended silence makes bears nervous.

"Can’t believe I’m this close to a bear. I’m really happy," says Tony Wear.

"Even if we don’t see another bear I’ve got my money’s worth. It doesn’t get much better than this," agrees Jerry Roth, grinning ear-to-ear.

Courtney adds: "They are so beautiful."

The courtship however, is unlikely to amount to much, according to Allen.

"See how she’s huffing and puffing a bit at him," he asks. "Well that’s a sign he should keep his distance."

Another bear that Allen has nicknamed "Romeo" or "Slim," is apparently the one having all the luck with the ladies this spring, having mated with five already, including Jeanie. The romantic fate of this new bear remains unknown, as the pair gradually make their way down the hill and disappear into the forest. Time to move on again.

Fittingly for me at least, one of the last bears we find on our travels is Jake – a 75 pound male yearling who has unwittingly become a darling of the Whistler media over the past year. Sitting by himself in the long grass at the base of Whistler Mountain, he represents a somewhat lonesome figure.

"Jake has recently been pushed out by his mother Jeanie to prevent inbreeding or him killing her next cubs," explains Allen. "He’s a bit skittish because young male bears are right at the bottom of the totem pole and he’s too small to defend a home range."

So how is Jake coping with the separation?

"Oh he was wailing and crying and pretty confused at first, but I just hope he stays out of trouble," Allen says.

And keeping out of trouble is often the biggest factor in a bear’s life expectancy. Male black bears between one and three years comprise 90 per cent of the 200 or so black bears killed in Whistler over the past 10 years, according to Allen. He says unfortunately many young males are forced into close proximity with humans and end up getting killed by cars or trains or destroyed for becoming "problem bears."

"Bears in Whistler are extremely passive as long as they are given space," Allen says, "but unfortunately they have 30 years of cultural brainwashing as being pests and aggressive killers to overcome."

Misperceptions about bears is a problem that apparently stretches across many cultures. Kit Roth recalls coming across bears at the side of the road in Banff four years ago and pulling over with other motorists to watch from a safe, un-intrusive distance. However the arrival of a car full of young people changed all that.

"Their stereo was blasting and they kept the car running as they ran over next to the bears and started taking photos of each other," she says. "We couldn’t believe what they were doing and I think some people got their cameras ready for photographs of a mauling."

Fortunately for the ignorant tourists, the bears didn’t react aggressively or defensively.

Changing public perceptions of bears for the better is a key goal of the Whistler-Blackcomb tours. Aside from paying salaries, the money raised goes directly towards funding a proposed $5 million-$7 million mountain ecology and black bear research centre for the public at Olympic Station on Whistler Mountain. DeJong says only through education of people can bears and humans peacefully co-exist.

"Six years ago 20 to 30 bears were being destroyed every year in Whistler, which was a failure in community stewardship," he says. "But this has improved greatly, with only one killed last year. We have learned to bear-proof our garbage and clean up our act, especially in relation to the town’s landfill which used to attract so many bears."

Whistler-Blackcomb’s efforts to seed ski runs with natural bear foods, such as clover and grasses, has also helped distance bears from people areas. However DeJong says as a species, humans still have a long way to go.

"Co-existing with black bears means an ability to take care of our environment and in the bigger picture, the key global issues of clean air, clean water and preventing pollution."

He says the proposed research centre will be a place for residents, school children and visitors to learn about black bears and their role in ensuring the survival of the natural environment. DeJong anticipates seeking sponsors and grants to assist with funding, but says money raised through the bear viewing tours will be the first step in cementing the plan. The new centre is tentatively scheduled for completion within 10 years and will be designed to showcase green technologies as part of its overall conservation goals.

Whistler-Blackcomb’s three hour bear tours run from spring to late fall, when the bears start to den, and are timed to coincide with peak bear activity periods starting from 6 a.m. or 6 p.m.