bear aversion 

By Loreth Beswetherick Only time will tell if the aversive conditioning techniques being used by the RCMP on Whistler bears are successful. Conservation officers say they think they are working. The police say they think they are working but co-chair of Whistler's Black Bear Task Team, Sylvia Dolson, is not so sure. All say they will need several years to evaluate the success. Bear researcher Michael Allen is, however, certain the so called aversive conditioning techniques being used by the RCMP are not working and never will. He said the root of the problem — proper garbage disposal — still has to be addressed and that takes education. The Ministry of Environment's conservation office reports a total of six bears have been destroyed in the Whistler area this year — and that appears average. Bear activity usually peaks toward the fall when the ursine beasts work to attain weight before hibernation. The total number of bears killed for the whole of 1998 was 18. There were 17 bears killed in 1997, 17 in 1996 and there were 18 put down in 1995. Allen said the RCMP and conservation officers are not doing true aversive conditioning. "What they are doing is a kind of non-lethal bear deterrent program. It's use is very short term," said Allen. "All they are basically doing is scaring bears from one area they are not supposed to be in to another." Allen said they are not tracking the bears nor anticipating their antics and showing up and scaring them off before they get into trouble. That, he said, would be true aversive conditioning. "They are basically bumping bears from one subdivision to another... they are bouncing bears all over Whistler. They deter the bear from one garbage source and he gets 10 more that night," said Allen. He did say, however, that the program is not a total waste of time and money. "My biggest concern is that people will look at it as a long-term solution. It's good that the RCMP officers have the kit but they should realize the limitations. This isn't the solution. It's a last-resort effort and all the focus should be on the source of the problem, which is garbage. You need direct education for each subdivision, you need better residential garbage management and you need strong enforcement of it," said Allen. "You need a big sign as you enter Whistler saying you are in black bear habitat, please store your garbage indoors." Allen said the sign could also use statistics to illustrate how many bears have had to be destroyed over the last several years to drive home the point. "People are shocked when they hear that. But, at the same time, these are the people who phone the RCMP officers right off the bat when they see a bear. It's really not their fault, they don't know." Allen said people are still staying in a Whistler condo for a week and leaving without ever knowing they shouldn't have stored their garbage on the deck. Cpl. David Fee said the bears destroyed this year have all been aggressive and public safety had to be taken into consideration. He said the bears shot were either breaking into houses, tearing the sides off catering trucks or were on decks and disoriented. "The bears were not fearful," said Fee. "I think the aversive conditioning is working in some cases. I am not sure what time frame is needed to assess it." Allen said aversive conditioning will not work with a bear already habituated to garbage. "If a bear is breaking into a building there are not many options you can use," he said. "But Whistler has basically created this kind of bear behaviour." He added that just because a bear is breaking into a car or house doesn't mean it is extremely dangerous. "There is no real difference between a bear ripping and tearing apart a log for insects than ripping apart a car going after the pizza boxes someone has left inside." Dolson said the Black Bear Task Team stands behind the aversive conditioning program. It was Dolson who went to the town of Mammoth Lakes in California in September 1998 to pick the brains of ex-hunter and trapper Steve Searles who has become known for his bear scaring successes. Local conservation officers studied videos Dolson brought back and put together their own program. "We then trained the RCMP," said conservation officer Steve Jacobi. "The RCMP wanted to be more proactive so that they didn't have to shoot a whole lot of bears and, it seems to be working," said Jacobi. "The idea is to harass the animal until it is not comfortable being around people at all." Dolson said the task team has to pursue this avenue, but it is her personal opinion that the "aversive conditioning" is not being used to its full potential. "What I would like to see is the RCMP trained in bear behaviour so they can better understand and gauge a bear's reaction in various circumstances and apply the aversive conditioning more effectively." She said police need to know that if a bear huffs at them, it is annoyed but it doesn't mean it is going to charge. Or, that if it stands up and sniffs the air, it is merely assessing the situation and not being threatening. "You have to understand them otherwise you are going to fear them." Ideally, what Dolson would like to see is Whistler's own Steve Searles funded by the municipality and on-call 24-hours a day throughout the entire bear season. She said zero bears had to be destroyed in the three years Searles had been running his program in Mammoth. "He is familiar with the bear behaviour," said Dolson. "He acts like the dominant alpha bear would act in each situation and it works for him. He attacks each situation using as many different senses as possible. He screams at the bears, using their ears, shoots flares at them so they see and he runs toward them so they feel the danger and move away from him. It's not a passive thing he is doing at all. He gets in the bear's face. It's a very aggressive aversive conditioning program." She said Searles knows all the resident bears and is always on call. The municipality's Brain Barnett, co-chair of the Black Bear Task Team with Dolson, said he hopes to get a status report from the RCMP at a meeting slated for next week, after which he will be better able to comment. He said both the bears and the task team are going through a learning curve. "When we researched the various bear aversion programs we recognized right up front that this is a program that would provide long-term benefits and it will take time for the bears to be less dependent on garbage. We don't expect to see immediate benefits." Dolson said she hopes to address the need for more RCMP education at the meeting. Allen said Whistler has to make up its mind whether it wants humans and bears to co-exist. "If people can't handle or tolerate a bear walking down the street, then we have a problem... and people can't right now so Whistler has a serious long-term problem." He noted tourists bring diverse cultural backgrounds to the resort. "Everyone comes with a mixed perception of what a black bear is, from a blood thirsty killer to being really tame." Education he said, is key and pamphlets just don't cut it. "We are just sitting around waiting for the problem to happen." ttttt Whistler's Black Bear Task Team was formed in 1997. It is comprised of about 10 members representing the RCMP, Carney's Waste Systems, Intrawest, conservation officers, the municipality and the Jennifer Jones Whistler Bear Foundation. The Jennifer Jones Bear Foundation membership is dropping, said Dolson. It is still used as a non-profit, charity avenue for which people can make donations. The money is in turn used to fund initiatives of the Black Bear Task Team but the kitty, said Dolson, is almost empty. One of the biggest expenses has been the municipal bear proof garbage bins which the foundation is still paying for. "We have very little money left and very few members," said Dolson.

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