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bear conversations

The trouble with humans The bears’ view of ursus americanus-homo sapien conflicts By Alan Forsythe Well it is officially spring and that means several things in Whistler: snow will have the consistency of poured concrete, stores will be selling off their winter clothing at great discounts, and bears will be coming out of hibernation. Bears have always been a part of Whistler. In fact, bears have been here since before there was a Whistler, which is something a few people seem to lose sight of when talking about the "bear problem" at Whistler. Bears are shot every year, and last year was an especially bloody one, not just here, but throughout the whole Sea to Sky Corridor and Vancouver's North Shore. So what did they (the bears) do to deserve such retribution? Are they selling drugs? Stealing car stereos? Smuggling illegal immigrants? No, not even close. Their worst crime to date seems to be their affinity for rooting through our garbage. That being the case, it’s worth pointing out that many homeless people in Vancouver root through other people’s garbage without being shot. Of course that isn't entirely the problem, there is the never to be underestimated fear factor — fear that a bear will maul or even kill somebody (possibly a tourist) — even though you are more likely to be struck by lightening than attacked by a bear (that's 1:600,000, for those of you who need to know the odds). So why all the bloodshed then? Since we are the ones encroaching on their habitat, maybe it’s time we asked the bears what they think the problem is with us. The first thing to do is to find some bears to interview. This being early April, the bears are easy to find, since they swarm through the village looking for a good time after a long, winter hibernation. As a group they have been reluctant to voice their concerns, or even talk about themselves, particularly to the media. I come across a group of young bears hanging around the gondola at Base II. Some of them have snowboards, and all wear toques with fashionable labels plastered on the front. I start a casual conversation with them, asking how their day went on the mountain. "Lousy," yelled one irritated looking bear. "We always wake up too late in the season to get the really good snow." "And the Ski Patrol is always looking to chase us off the mountain," added another bear. I introduced myself and explained that I was writing an article for the Pique on bears in the valley and asked for their names. "The Pique, huh?" Roger, or "Rog" as he prefers, sounded unimpressed. The second bear introduced himself as Pete. The rest of the group milled about while I spoke with their two friends, but declined to comment. "So what do you want to know?" asked Pete. "I guess the big question is what do you think of all the development in the valley in recent years and how has it affected you?" Roger jumped in first. "We are really too young to have witnessed all of the changes that our parents saw, but you know what really sucks? In the last few years we have come out of hibernation and found houses in places where we used to hang out." "No kidding dude," confirmed Pete. "And what about places to eat? Remember Blueberry Hill? It’s a tragedy what they did there." "So I suppose you feel justified in going through people’s trash?" "Of course! You should see what people throw out these days. And besides, none of the restaurants in the village will serve us." I found that difficult to believe, but further research led me to find that many village eateries have standing policies about not serving bears. (Not surprisingly, none of the said restaurateurs wished to be identified.) It was obvious that the bears enjoy sports, or at least snowboarding, as much as the rest of us who call Whistler home. This made me wonder: do they take advantage of the lift system on the mountains, or is their boarding reserved mostly for the backcountry? Neither of the bears was quick to jump in with an answer, but finally Pete admitted that there are a few "cool" liftees who let the bears ride up, though most of the time the bears rely on their own four legs to carry them up the slopes. I thanked Pete and Roger for their time, and then asked if they knew of any other bears that might be willing to talk. They suggested "Old Hodge", who was still in his den just over Sunridge Plateau. So off I went in search of Old Hodge. I had my doubts about finding a bear den in the woods of Whistler Mountain, but luck was on my side. I ran into Hodge (he prefers that I leave off the "Old") foraging for food on a path near the recently sold mega-cabin, Akasha. He was a little surprised that I had been looking for him, but was perfectly willing to talk to me about "anything and everything," as he put it. Hodge was certainly bigger than his youthful counterparts I had met at the gondola, and his eyes expressed a certain weariness. Instead of trendy headgear he sported (rather ironically) a worn-out hunter’s cap, complete with earflaps that went well with his salt and pepper coat. "So how would you say the younger generation of bears differs from yours?" I asked him as he settled himself comfortably at the base of a large Douglas fir tree. "Kids today seem to be out for a good time; we never had time for that. In my day there was always something that had to be done, whether it was building a den, looking for food, or raising the cubs." "Speaking of cubs, do you have any?" "Two boys," he confirmed, smiling slightly. "Do they live here in Whistler?" "No, not anymore. They got relocated a couple of summers ago; now they live near Prince George. I got a letter from them last fall; they seem to like it up there all right. Still, I miss them, especially now that I'm getting up there in years." He looked very sad as he told me this and I felt badly for him. But I had to inquire further. "What are your thoughts on relocation in general?" "Well, it is certainly better than the alternative, that’s for sure, but on the other hand it doesn’t seem fair, especially when it rips families apart, as in my case." I asked about the changes that have taken place in the valley during his lifetime. "When I was a cub we lived down where the town centre is now. We didn’t mind the humans that first moved into the neighbourhood — they were easygoing, likeable folk and we basically all got along. Then the building started and all of a sudden the people we had tolerated decided they couldn’t tolerate us." "Why do you suppose that was?" "I don’t know; you tell me." He answered a little gruffly, but then, as if deciding to end our conversation on a positive note, he offered: "You should talk to Lydia. She’s something of an activist and has been studying the human problem for years now." I thanked Hodge for his insight, and following his directions, headed to Lost Lake in search of Lydia. I found Lydia’s den on a trail near the end of the lake. Fortunately for me, she was at home and happy to contribute to my research. I apologized for dropping by unannounced, but she seemed pleased to have a visitor and offered me some honey. I declined the honey and she smiled, saying that she ought to be cutting down herself, patting her stomach as she said so. (To my eyes though her girth was considerably less that that of Hodge.) Lydia was only a few years younger that Hodge, but her coat remained black and shiny and her eyes bright and youthful. Her den was tastefully decorated with antiques and a large Persian rug. I remarked on how comfortable the chair was in which I sat. "Oh yes, I picked that one up in a garage in the Benchlands. It is just amazing what people leave out." "So Hodge tells me you have been studying the ‘Human Problem’ in the village for years now." Lydia chuckled good-naturedly. "Well ‘problem’ is your word, and as for studying, I wouldn’t call it that; what I do is more like thoughtful observation." "Ok, fair enough. So what have you observed about humans?" "Well, you certainly are a perplexing lot. You people come to Whistler, as I understand it, to enjoy outdoor life but as soon as you get here you want to build over everything." "But don’t you get to enjoy some of the amenities that have been built here?" She snorts before answering. "Sure, I like a round of golf as much as anyone, but it’s hard to get out there without someone shooting at me." "I admit, that hardly seems fair," I replied. I mentioned to Lydia that Hodge had told me about a time when the local bear and human populations had been able to peacefully co-exist, and asked whether she felt that sort of existence was possible again. Lydia sighed heavily. "I’ve certainly tried to promote that concept but there just doesn’t seem to be much acceptance on the part of humans. Whenever I try to approach the mayor or council on local issues, like the preservation of Emerald Forest, they just shoo me away." "What about the accusations that some bears hassle tourists or pick fights with the locals?" "The few bears that do that sort of thing are young males, practically cubs, and while I don’t agree with that sort of behavior, they aren’t doing any real harm; they’re just sowing their wild oats, so to speak. Besides, a lot of what goes on is wildly exaggerated." "So you feel that relocation is unjustified?" "I feel it is unjustified, but then again it does seem to be the only way to avoid bloodshed, although I do dream of a day when a human child and a bear cub can walk through the town centre hand in paw." She says it wistfully, but admits that she doesn't expect that day to come anytime soon. It is getting late, so I thank Lydia for her time and her comments and make my way back down to the village. On my way I see the young bears I had talked to earlier, out on the deck of the Longhorn Saloon sharing a bear with some fellow snowboarders. I smile to myself thinking, "Well maybe Lydia's hopes and dreams aren't so far away." Authors note: Thousands of black bears are poached each year in North America, most for their gall bladders which are highly valued in far Eastern markets. Asian black bears have been hunted almost to extinction for this very reason. Please support wildlife conservation, and remember never feed wild animals.

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