Bear aware 

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF TOURISM WHISTLER
  • Photo courtesy of Tourism Whistler

It's hard not to come across amazing photos of Whistler bears these days on social media and even in the pages of Pique (Please stay well back from the bears—avoid them if you can—if you must take a photo!).

They are wandering the ski runs, the golf courses, the Valley Trail and all our environs—though so far not in the village, thankfully.

Local bear expert Michael Allen identified 55 black bears, including 17 adult females and 20 adult males last year. That's down slightly from 2016's count, when he tallied 57.

In 2017, Allen, who has been documenting bears for over 33 years, believes a minimum of nine bears were lost from the 55 known bears counted—three adult males to conflicts with people/accessing garbage, one adult female to conflicts with people/garbage, one adult male to vehicle collision, and four cubs-of the-year during the mating period, likely from male aggression,

He is expecting about 45 black bears within the Whistler boundary in 2018.

According to a briefing last fall by the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, across the province there were over 14,000 complaints about black bears, with 496 black bears destroyed.

"Non-natural food sources continue to be a significant driver for bear conflict," explained deputy chief conservation officer Chris Doyle at the time.

As we transition through spring and into summer, bears will become more and more common in the valley and on the mountain trails.

Let's recommit to keeping our community a Bear Smart one and take whatever opportunities we can to educate visitors and new residents about the human responsibility that goes along with this designation.

Last October, Pique reported the heart-wrenching story of a bear that became trapped in a car, and despite the best efforts of the car's owner, the bruin could not get out. It was hours before the situation came to an end with the bear's death at the hands of a conservation officer.

While there was no food in this car, the bear had found some in previous break-ins—so please keep your car doors locked and leave no food or even wrappers in your vehicles.

You could even leave an old pot or pan by the front door with a good, strong wooden spoon to hit it with as a bear deterrent.

And for our bears' sake, clean your ground-floor barbecue, put your bird feeders so far off the ground they cannot be reached except by flight, and never leave your garbage by the front door.

The Get Bear Smart Society has told us in past blogs that "so-called 'problem' bears are not born; they are the product of human carelessness and indifference. Although not all bears develop into conflict animals, those that frequent developed areas where garbage and other bear attractants are easily accessible are much more likely to get into trouble.

"Bears get into conflict with people when they are trained, or conditioned, to want non-natural food sources such as garbage."

Bears can learn from a single experience and cubs learn the fundamental skills of survival from their mother. If the mother spends most of her time foraging for food at a landfill or from another human garbage source, this is the behaviour the cubs will learn—and, often, repeat, explains Get Bear Smart.

Black bears have always lived here, in the valley and on the mountains. And as development began here in the '90s, the writing was on the wall for our ursine neighbours.

In a previous column for Pique, Allen recalled how in 1994 he managed to snap a photo of 18 bears at one time at the old garbage dump in Function, now the site of the Cheakamus Crossing community. The bears were simply adapting to food sources, and at the time, little thought was given to the issue. To many, the bears were a great attraction—something to go see on any visit to the growing resort. Resident mothers at the time, reported Allen, were having three-cub litters.

But after 1999, when the landfill was surrounded by an electric fence, those types of aggregations of bears were never seen again. But bears, once conditioned to that source of food were not easy to get rid of. Over the next eight years, more than 100 holes were dug by bears to get in.

Said Allen: "The landfill at times had a rather ironically humourous scenario of fenced-in bears instead of the fence keeping the bears out."

When the landfill was closed permanently in preparation for the 2010 Olympic Games, the bear population again went though another upheaval.

This scenario is unlikely to change. Whistler will continue to develop and the animals that live here are forced to adapt. Have we become better partners in Mother Nature's two-step? I believe we have, but there is much still to do.

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