Naturalist bears down in the bush By Don Anderson In a town where the passion of its inhabitants often entails strapping a pair of boards to one's feet, Whistler naturalist Michael Allen has opted for a distinctly different passion — the study of black bears. Those furry creatures, large enough to knock Grizzly Adams to his feet and hungry enough to devour the entire contents of most garbage containers, have been under careful watch by Allen since his arrival in Whistler in 1992. Although he does not hold any degree, doctorate or masters in this natural science, the 31-year-old Allen has dedicated much of his life to living and learning from black bears. This spring he will embark on yet another season of living in the woods, where he will get closer to his subject than most of us have ever dreamed, or wanted. By living close, very close, to Whistler’s bear population and observing their activity and habitat Allen has been able to identify 57 individual bears since 1993 just by their markings. He’s even taken the pulse of sleeping bears. Call it "Bears in the Mist," if you will. "A lot of scientists kind of turn their nose up at this kind of observation type of research," Allen says of his endeavours, which started out as a "hobby" 10 years ago in the Kootenays, just outside his hometown of Trail. "But they’ve been doing it in Africa for years with giraffes, zebras, and gorillas. I mean, that’s how they identify whales off the coast of Vancouver Island." The subject of bears and their relationship and interaction with humans in Whistler has drawn considerable attention over the past three years. In 1994, a series of incidents resulted in the shooting of approximately 20 bears and relocation of a similar number. The Jennifer Jones Whistler Bear Foundation evolved out of that concern, and has assisted in raising funds to relocate bears as well as provide information on bears to the public. Last summer reported run-ins between bears and their human foil were not as numerous as the previous year, but the concern continues to exist. Awareness and education will be the focus of the foundation’s 1996 campaign. "We have a long way to go," says Allen, before visitors and newcomers are fully aware of the area's bear population and their effect on it. "People don’t know." Starting next week, Allen will indulge Pique readers with an insider's examination of the corridor's black bear population. With his regular bi-monthly column, Allen hopes to educate the masses about the life of a Whistler bear. "The rest of the columns for the year will expand on each topic relating to the season, including den emergence, what they look for to feed on first," he says. Among the topics to be covered will be the area's garbage and its management, which Allen says is one of the most significant issues facing the community and the bear population. Whistler's landfill site, located across from Function Junction, has often been the setting of a feeding frenzy for the area's bears. Allen has counted up to 24 bears at one time feasting on the dump's smorgasbord of disposable delectables. Until the dump was fenced and gated, visitors would gather in their vehicles to watch the feeding en masse. Some, says Allen, would try to get as close as they could just for the sake of that Kodak moment, not realizing the true danger of their actions. "People used to come to watch them from New York, New Jersey, Africa... and they didn’t really know about bears," he says. "They heard anything from bears were the most ferocious thing on the planet to them being teddy bears. I mean, people would throw bottles at them." Allen says garbage can be a double-edged sword for local bears. While the dump provides an attractive feeding ground for bears, and thus has helped in many ways to allow the bear population to subsist, the disposing of garbage around town has provided for a few too many close encounters with the curious and often ill-informed human population. To clear up any misunderstanding and misinformation that may exist in the community among visitors, locals and recent arrivals, Allen will offer tips on how to store garbage and how not to attract bears. "The solution is so simple, it's just to keep this valley as clean as possible," he says. "If we keep it clean it just lessens the chance of conflict." For the most part Allen has kept his activities in the bush to himself, but with Blackcomb Mountain providing funding to the naturalist for study on its terrain, he is beginning to see the need to reveal his findings to the public. "I was just curious about what effect shooting the bears every year had on the population," he says, of his research. "I realize that they have to do it sometimes, but a lot of times it doesn't have to happen." Allen says he is collecting information to project population trends over a 10-year period, which he will compare to Ministry of Environment findings for his study area, which encompasses Brandywine Falls north to Blackcomb Mountain. "I would like to get 10 years of data," he says. When he's finished, he anticipates a return to school and the completion of a degree. In the meantime, life in the bush sure beats a desk job. "I've turned down a lot of jobs — my whole life revolves around it, I guess." Look for Michael Allen’s column on Whistler’s bears starting next week. Sponsorship provided by the Jennifer Jones Whistler Bear Foundation. The mandate of the foundation is to "protect the lives and promote the well-being of bears within the Whistler Valley."