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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.

To take classroom information further so that kids could apply theory to field interpretation, the Grade 5 field trip program began in 1999. Over 400 students along with supporting parents and teachers climbed into bear dens, measured daybeds, collected hair samples, interpreted feeding sites, poked through bear scat, and observed a wide range of bear behaviours during 70 field trips.

It’s only fitting that as the world changes, producing more critical environmental issues, so should the minds of the younger generation. Our kids will be tackling those issues.

So I’d like to extend a big thanks to Myrtle Philip and Spring Creek Community Schools; the teachers, students, and parents for maintaining their interest and support for this crucial and successful program. And I never get tired of listening to kids bear stories.

Early supporters of the Whistler Community School BEP were the Jennifer Jones Bear Foundation (now called Get Bear Smart Society) and Whistler-Blackcomb. Whistler-Blackcomb (through Arthur DeJong) continue to provide logistical support for field trips and partnership in bear viewing and population monitoring. The ski area continues to be an endless source of educational experience.

Brian Barnett at the Resort Municipality of Whistler has to be commended for his long-term support of both classroom and field programs from 1999 to 2005. Without RMOW support this program would not have been possible.

Other supports include Pique Newsmagazine, Whistler Museum and Archives Society, Whistler Parks and Recreation, Whistler Question, Mountain FM, Tourism Whistler, Canadian All Terrain Adventures Ltd., Brent Harley and Associates, Weather Network, BBC Natural History Unit (Bristol, UK), Squamish Public Library, Brackendale Elementary, and the hundreds of students, teachers, parents, and members of the public that stimulate and elevate their interest in bears each year. I would also like to thank Howe Sound School District 48 for administrative support. To my knowledge this program is the longest running bear education initiative in a B.C. elementary school.

I am pleased to announce that thanks to the new Squamish Working Bear Group and Squamish Bear Network, a BEP will begin this spring in Squamish elementary schools.

Thanks to Pique Newsmagazine for sponsorship of Bear Update columns.