Mountains back in bear-viewing business 

Commercial bear and ecology tours on Whistler and Blackcomb kicked off this week and the mountains are confident demand will be even higher than the inaugural season last year.

The twice daily tours at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. are scheduled to coincide with high bear activity periods and will run until fall, when the bears start to den.

Arthur DeJong, Whistler Blackcomb mountain planning and environmental manager, says prices will remain at $169 per adult for the three hour tour, with $10 discounts available for younger people.

"The tours are expensive and we were surprised at the number of people willing and able to pay that price," he admits. "However keeping it at that level helps maintain our philosophy of keeping the tours small and non intrusive. Obviously people feel they are getting value for money." He adds that Whistler-Blackcomb will be the only outfit running bear tours within the recreational ski area. "We do not want a situation that has occurred with commercial whale watching (excess tours) and will definitely back off if the bears appear disturbed."

An additional two seats have been added to the tour vehicle, enabling a maximum group of seven to sign up. Last season more than 500 people reportedly went on the tours, raising around $100,000 in the process.

DeJong says the benefits from the money raised are two-fold.

"It helps the conservation of black bears by increasing awareness through education and also helps raise money for the building of a world class mountain ecology and bear research centre on Whistler."

He says money has already been put toward purchasing artifacts for the centre such as display boards and photographs, which can currently be viewed at mid-station on Whistler.

Whistler-Blackcomb estimates the cost of the proposed centre at between $5 million and $7 million.

DeJong says money raised from the tours also goes some way towards helping fund the work of black bear researcher Michael Allen who runs 90 percent of the tours.

Other guides in the program include local ecologist Bob Brett, former AWARE (Association of Whistler Residents for the Environment) Stephane Perron and forester Don MacLaurin. DeJong says the bulk of the tours will focus on black bears but trips can be tailored to take a wider flora and fauna perspective.

Whistler-Blackcomb says the bulk of tour bookings are made through the Chateau, Delta and Westin hotels, as well as through its web site and brochures.

Bear viewing school trips are scheduled for the fall.

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