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Jeanie's story

When well-loved local black bear Jeanie walked out of her den with three cubs last spring bruin-watchers heaved a collective gasp.
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When well-loved local black bear Jeanie walked out of her den with three cubs last spring bruin-watchers heaved a collective gasp.

They all know if Jeanie has cubs she heads to the village in the fall and early winter in her mistaken belief that she must do this to fatten her offspring with garbage for hibernation.

So when she lost a cub in May there was a little less worry in the bear observation community, though a meeting was still planned to talk about how to manage Jeanie, who is tagged in both ears - a sure sign of a bear who has strayed out of the wild into human territory.

Then early in June she lost a second cub. While that meant even less chance of risky behaviour in the fall it was sadness not relief that dominated those who watch Jeanie - the only black bear to have her own Facebook group (www.bearsmart.com/Jeanie.html).

So in late August, when she lost her last remaining cub at seven months old, only sorrow was left.

This was the first time Jeanie has had three cubs since she started reproducing in 1997 and it's relatively rare for her species.

"I was quite taken aback when her final cub went... he was so large," said Whistler self-taught bear researcher Michael Allen, who has been documenting the lives of black bears for 24 years.

"He was almost 40 pounds and he was big and fast. One day he was there and the next day he wasn't there.

"I had just spent a few hours with them a few days before and it was mother and cub in the berry patch, and everything was fine, and then this male shows up and just starts harassing her."

It isn't clear what happened to the cubs - they are likely to have been victims of males who are intent on breeding with Jeanie, or were possibly lost to the aggressive behaviour of other females or even coyotes. But it is clear that once again the trials and tribulations of this iconic Whistler bear are providing the average resident and visitor a rare glimpse inside the life a black bear.

"It is tragic," said Sylvia Dolson of the Get Bear Smart Society, who manages Jeanie's Facebook page. Her organization works to bear-proof Whistler and educate the public on bear safety.

"It is heart-breaking. We thought we were in the clear for the last one."

And in another twist to the story the same male that harassed the bears in the berry patch, the young, aggressive suitor who may have killed Jeanie's last cub, may have tried to mate with her.

Then in late September a bear named Slumber, one of the largest black bears in Whistler, moved in and started courting. We won't know until spring if this out-of-season mating with either of these two males is successful.

Allen, who has observed and documented all of this, has never seen courtship or breeding after July though it is not unheard of.

This unusual behaviour is carefully noted by Allen, along with other changing behaviours like mother bears keeping their cubs longer, females separating from yearlings for breeding then allowing family regrouping, changing spatial relationships with neighbouring females and alternate foraging strategies.

"I've never seen a male go up and harass a mother to this extent (physical fighting) in the berry season," said Allen.

"I know it has been documented elsewhere but only a few times. That is not the norm.

"This is the whole reason I do this, is to try and document the female's life. Now in the last few years I am starting to see some really drastic changes; mothers keeping cubs longer, and now this out-of-season breeding, and the heavy cub loss this spring, and young male bears being more aggressive."

The reason breeding occurs in late May to late July is so that all of this distracting social behaviour is over with by the time the serious berry feeding starts in August. Bears can feed 20 hours a day.

This year there were 15 cubs born to seven moms, and seven died or were killed - six of those in the breeding season.

Allen is still working on his observations this year but the most likely culprits for all the lost cubs seem to be the males interested in breeding. In 24 years Allen has only witnessed four cubs killed by males, although he has seen hundreds of fights between mothers and males trying to kill the cubs to force mothers back into breeding status.

It is a harsh reality and it is easy to forget that Jeanie lives in the wild kingdom not the human one.

In Jeanie's world life is governed by the search for food, the protection of offspring and reproducing. Outside of those priorities all bets are off.

Earlier this summer Jeanie could be seen grazing on the still dew-wet grass on the slopes of a north Whistler ski run.

Her tagged ears would flick back and forth as she ambled. Her thick fur was impervious to the needle-sharp cold wind that gusted now and then. Not far away in the undergrowth a tiny brown bundle, her cub, hunted a wind-blown branch.

It was a picture-perfect scene of Canadian wilderness but underlying the serenity for Allen was a growing fear that 18-year-old Jeanie was headed for more run-ins with those who live and visit the valley as she seeks to feed her cub.

Jeanie's story this season, and every season, is the tale of black bears all over the province that are trying to co-exist with humans in a world where people have all the power. In B.C. a bear who is conditioned to seek human food usually ends up dead.

Last year in Whistler 11 bears were killed, the year before it was 12.

"In the 16 years I have been here we have killed the population twice in the number of bears we have removed and destroyed, and that to me is not a good track record," said Allen. "That is embarrassing and that doesn't show any respect for the wildlife at all."

Though the majority of killed bears are males this surely would have been 18-year-old Jeanie's fate years ago if she were not such a Whistler icon. Indeed, in 1998 she was the co-star, along with Allen, of a BBC documentary titled In the Company of Bears .

So when Jeanie came out of her den with three new cubs Allen was struck with a grim reality: In the fall Jeanie would likely take her new cubs to the village to feed on human leftovers to fatten them up for hibernation, especially if the berry crop was poor. And by following that need to feed her young she could place all their lives at risk.

"She takes her cubs down to the village to find food for them - and it is so ironic that she is only doing it for them - but it is the worst thing she could do," said Allen.

"When the police come to shove her out of town she charges them.

"When she does come down I try and get her out as fast as I can," said Allen running his hand over his closely cropped hair.

"I swear she gave me all these grey hairs.

"But we owe it to her to put up with her."

Asked why we owe her, Allen replies that Jeanie's bad behaviour is only a reflection of our bad behaviour. She has learned that we leave food lying around and if she comes down the mountain she'll find it.

People and businesses leave garbage outside, they grow plants bears love to eat and they put bird feeders outside, forgetting that bears are excellent climbers. Some people leave groceries in cars, forgetting that bears are strong enough to push in windows and pry open doors. A local has even been charged with hand feeding bears as if they were his pets.

Allen isn't sure when Jeanie realized that human food and humans themselves posed little risk.

He believes, in fact, that this realization for her was a key strategy in her early success in becoming the dominant female on the mountains.

"She made choices at that younger age to be very tolerant of people and we left the garbage out and she found it, so she is part of the equation, and we are part of the equation and the outcome has not been good," said Allen.

Jeanie's first recorded run-in with human food was in 1998 at Beaver Tails on Whistler Mountain, where she enjoyed delicious grease drippings and buns from the freezers.

In 2000 she made the front page of the papers after climbing a tree with her cub Jake following a food forage at the Blackcomb Daylodge and Merlin's.

That episode brought out the police. When Allen got to the scene he moved in and cleaned up all the food such as old French fries and onion rings, and moved everyone away so she would come down. Then he forced her back up Blackcomb Mountain with the help of the police.

The 2004 season, a drought year for berries, was one of Jeanie's biggest problem years. With her two cubs in tow she came into the village every night for over three weeks trying to find human food. The pattern was set after she found the mother lode of garbage packed with pasta and seafood outside a village eatery one night.

That year Allen, hired by the Get Bear Smart Society to try and keep her out of trouble, would walk her route and bear proof it every night. Then he would follow her and force her out of the village. But even with no food reward she kept coming down until early December.

"She would look but she never got a reward other than licking an empty Starbucks cup," said Allen.

"The cubs were fat and healthy so she did not need to be doing this. It is what she is used to, it is what she discovered she could do."

It is not clear how Jeanie became so habituated. In 1998, in one of Allen's first encounters with Jeanie, she came right up and picked up a book he had lying beside him in her mouth.

She is unlike nearly all the other mother bears on the mountains.

Jeanie learned very quickly that to be successful meant to tolerate everything and to be very accepting of close human activity, said Allen.

"Right from the beginning she let trucks go by at 10 metres when she was feeding with her cubs," he said.

"The other female bears wouldn't do that so she stood out right at the beginning as not being really dominant but being really tolerant and accepting."

The result was that she dominated the berry patch as she stayed when humans were nearby and continued eating. As a result she is easily one of the most photographed bears in the world outside of a zoo.

"She would chase out big males, she controlled the patch, she gained the most weight out of any other female so right away her behaviour of being more tolerant paid off," said Allen of Jeanie in 2000.

However, while this may have been a successful strategy for her it probably led to a certain casualness about her role as a mama bear, he added.

"It is possible that as a female bear becomes more human habituated and more desensitized and too tolerant of surrounding human activity she tends to not respond as immediately. And even though those things don't intentionally hurt a cub it kind of softens her senses for when something really significant comes."

Whistler is very serious about cutting down on the number of bears destroyed and the number of conflicts. It recently enacted a new bylaw that will allow fines of $200 to $500 against people who do not appropriately dispose of garbage or other materials that might attract bears.

If people still refuse to comply with the bylaw they can be taken to court, where, if convicted, they face a fine of not less than $2,000 and up to $10,000 - or up to three months in jail. Feeding a bear at any time will land you with a $500 fine.

The Get Bear Smart Society is working tirelessly to get rid of bear attractants in the bruin no-go zone in Whistler Village and the Benchlands area.

Bear problems had been cut by half this summer compared to last year at this time, said Sylvia Dolson, the Society's executive director.

"I am feeling like we are really getting something accomplished, that we are actually making a difference now," she said.

This year was also a good one for the berry crop, and since over 20 bears have either been destroyed or were killed in the last couple of years there are likely fewer problem bears to contend with.

But you can't teach an old bear new tricks and for that reason the society and other stakeholders have already met to plan what to do if Jeanie comes down to the village this autumn.

"We do have a plan in place... and the plan is to deal with that situation non-lethally, said Dolson.

"But that is no guarantee though, it is just a plan."

She is hopeful that without a cub Jeanie will not come down to the village.

But Allen isn't so sure.

"...If she is in biological mode to produce cubs in January she might be pretty determined to get more food than she has now," he said.

"That might just give her that kick to go find garbage."

Jeanie has not put on as much weight as usual since she was nursing her cub until August.

He also believes a garbage splurge at the Roundhouse last fall just before hibernation is behind Jeanie having three cubs this year.

Allen is watching her closely, knowing that as a single bear she can slip quietly in and out of the village.

"But I will ride her tail," he said.

While it is clear that this old-school style Whistler bear behaviour is a problem, Allen is hoping for the best.

"I think we owe it to her to let her live out the last four or five years of her life with as little conflict as possible," he said.

After all, it is people who have put a bike park in her feeding range, allowed some increase in construction and more vehicle traffic. Added to this are nature's own pressures; coyotes, male bears, uncertain food supply and the tension that exists between the resident female bears that are now likely at maximum capacity on the mountains.

Any one thing would not upset Jeanie but altogether they are making her insecure in her own range.

"I guess in a way I feel kind of responsible for her because I have known her from the beginning and I have the insight into her behaviour," said Allen, while confessing in the same breath that sometimes he feels like just walking away from the task.

But it is bears like Jeanie, and Slumber, a magnificent male, and Katie, a strong ski-run mom who never comes to the village, that keep Allen going.

"...It shows me that it is possible for a bear to live here and co-exist," said Allen who has been leading bear watching tours on the mountains for 10 years, as well as doing educational outreach in the schools in the valley, and studying and recording the population since 1993.

In many ways Jeanie - named after Allen's Scottish grandmother - is Whistler's canary in the mine. Her life has been documented for over a decade in the local papers and her family life is followed like a local soap opera. When she gets into trouble people fear for her, and when the cubs she teaches bad habits to are destroyed the locals grieve.

But Whistler bears are changing and the new age bruins are likely to stay up high - still grazing on the runs, but sleeping in the continuous forests on the boundaries of the mountains.

The next great task, said Allen, is to track the offspring and manage them so they do not have to be destroyed.

"We need to know individual bears, and we need to know how the population flows with these young bears dispersing," he said.

There are four young females on the mountains that will be breeding soon and very few of the older mom bears are dying off. It is likely, believes Allen, that some of these females will need to disperse along with the males who usually leave.

For Dolson part of the solution is crystal clear:

"I just hope we are finally there and the worst is behind us," she said of the destruction of conflict bears.

"Now we have to maintain what we are doing. If there are no attractants then there are no problems, it is just so simple."

And having this unique relationship with Jeanie is part of that.

"I think the most valuable lesson that we have learned (from Jeanie is) to respect bears," said Dolson.

"We have learned how highly intelligent they are and how tolerant they are of our existence in their backyard and we have learned about our poor behaviour."

Said Allen: "She has taught us about bears, that maybe not all bears are the same. She has taught us how adaptable bears can be. She has allowed us into her life, not being the kind of bear that runs away and hides.

"Jeanie, for a lot of years, was almost on display.

"Now it is our turn to pay her back for that because she is not going to change."

 

 




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