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Opinion: What is Whistler’s policy on grizzly bears?

And who decides what is 'pressing information?'

In light of increased grizzly sightings in the Whistler Valley recently, and countless questions from readers, Pique endeavoured to answer an, on the surface, simple query: What is Whistler’s policy when it comes to grizzly bears?

What is the protocol when a grizzly is seen in a residential area, for example? What is the advice for the public, and for the media?

What is the municipality, in conjunction with other organizations, doing to ensure the protection of both the bears and the public?

Because on the topic of grizzly bear sightings so far in 2023, of which there have been at least three confirmed in the valley, it’s been mostly don’t ask, don’t tell from both the Conservation Officer Service (COS) and the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW).

“If there is an urgent concern for public safety, the COS will immediately inform the public via its own social media channels and ensure this information is received by its municipality and law enforcement partners, as well as local media,” read an emailed response from B.C.’s Ministry of Environment on Tuesday afternoon, June 6, in response to questions posed by Pique.

“In this case, no aggressive grizzly bear behaviour was reported, and the bear was grazing on natural foods. Conservation Officers monitored the situation and responded as necessary, with the bear being moved to a wilderness location.”

The grizzly bear in question was first spotted the afternoon of Friday, June 3, in Rainbow Park, which reportedly drew municipal staff to usher the public away, as well as uniformed RCMP officers carrying imposing-looking weaponry (likely tranquilizers).

As it happened, there was no official messaging from the COS, the RMOW or RCMP, despite multiple requests for info, aside from a lone tweet posted to the Whistler RCMP’s Twitter account advising the public to stay away from the area (media were not alerted to the tweet).

After traipsing through Rainbow Park, the bear moved on to the Whistler Cay neighbourhood, where it was photographed in people’s yards, before heading up to the Nesters area and across the highway to Lost Lake.

On Saturday, runners at the Whistler Half Marathon were rerouted after the bear was spotted grazing the Fairmont’s golf course. According to COS, the grizzly was tranquilized and relocated at the advice of a biologist.

But lost in all the excitement was any kind of communication or direction for stakeholders (media included).

As far as media coverage goes, some say the locations of grizzly bears in the valley should not be publicized, even generally, to ensure people give the bear the necessary space (it’s not clear if that is the reason for the radio silence from Whistler officials when sightings occur—they didn’t offer one, though Pique asked).

But the absence of clear communication with media only adds to the confusion for all involved—as evidenced by the wide range of questions and concerns Pique heard from readers and read on social media over the weekend.

For most, this dilemma can be boiled down to a simple question: I’m about to go for a walk with my dog—should I be aware of a grizzly bear in my neighbourhood?

The answer to this question is always yes.

So the next question becomes, how are we getting that info out for people?

According to the RMOW, the COS informs it of “pressing information” that should be shared with the public—which it did through its social channels late on Friday evening, well after the bear had moved on from Rainbow.

The parties also meet monthly at Whistler Bear Advisory Committee meetings, and the COS provides weekly updates to the RMOW about bear activities.

The RMOW supports the COS by sharing its alerts and proactive messaging, as well as by conducting “door-to-door education in neighbourhoods where bears are present,” a municipal communications official said in an email.

But who decides what is “pressing information?” Because personally I would like to be informed the next time a grizzly bear is in my neighbourhood—not several hours after it’s gone.

In terms of broader management, in 2020, the RMOW endorsed a new human-grizzly bear conflict mitigation strategy focused on the alpine after grizzly encounters increased on the Alpine Trail Network following its opening in 2017.

“We built trails up there without really understanding the use of the area by bears. I think if we could do it now, we would do things differently,” said environmental stewardship manager Heather Beresford at the time.

“We made a commitment as a municipal council a number of years ago to support the restoration of grizzly bears in the area, and so we have to do the best we can now.”

There were about eight adult grizzlies living in the Callaghan Valley at that time, Beresford said, noting their presence in the area is growing.

So as backcountry recreation ramps up, bears get pushed out. And as both human and bear populations grow in the area, the reality is that we will increasingly come into contact with one another.

So timely communication and effective messaging is crucial now more than ever. And as the RMOW rightly states, we need to aim for “measured messaging which strikes the right balance on details to minimize anxiety.”

After all, Whistler and the Sea to Sky is bear country.

“The COS asks the public to take precautions and do their part to minimize wildlife conflicts, including leashing pets, travelling in groups, carrying bear spray and securing attractants—this guidance applies to all bears,” the COS said in its emailed statement.

But one could argue that simply taking the messaging we use for black bears and applying it to grizzly bears does not go far enough, as Whistlerites—and by extension, many tourists—are incredibly nonchalant when it comes to black bears.

Just last month, I witnessed a family of four (two adults, with two small children) walking their bikes past a black bear on the Valley Trail as the dog and I waited for it to clear off.

As they passed within three metres of the fully grown bear, the dad commented on how cuddly and fuzzy it looked, to which the kids happily agreed.

A group of four more tourists followed on foot close behind them, casually conversing about how Whistler locals almost view the local bear population as akin to rabbits.

Is this how we should also react with the grizzlies that are increasingly finding their way through populated areas in the valley?

Casual, nonchalant (or in this case, near-nonexistent) messaging about the potential danger posed by grizzlies will elicit a casual, nonchalant response from the public.

So yes, let’s strike a balance between info and anxiety—but let’s also be realistic about what it really means to coexist with grizzlies.

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