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Bear Update: Bear space

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Bear Researcher

On a warm, late August afternoon we ascend the dusty access roads of the Whistler-Blackcomb ski area. The Suburban is filled with people eager to experience black bears in one way or another. Since 2000, some 1,400 people have accompanied me into the maze of high quality environs that this world-class alpine ski area has to offer the local bear population.

Questions begin: How close can we get? How many bears live here? What are they eating? How long do cubs stay with their mother? Do they come out in the winter? For me, bear viewing has sparked the key to unlocking a very effective direction in bear education. Participants arrive from all corners of the world – Alaska, Africa, Germany, Britain, Netherlands, South America, United States, and Canada. These bear tours offer high quality education – seeing, experiencing, and interpreting bear behaviour in bear habitat. Everyone wants to see a bear in their own environment doing bear things and that in itself sparks underlying interest in what a bear’s life is really like.

You would be surprised at the number of people that don’t bring cameras or have never seen a bear before. Many clients participate for experience and understanding, possibly in an attempt to reconcile fears or misconceptions about bear behaviour.

All bears have different personalities that may be represented by "bear space" or the individual distance that a bear tolerates to stimuli within its environment – some rewarding, some threatening, and some questionable. Within these distances bears interpret rewards, threats, and/or hold judgement for further sensory interpretation.

Bear space may range 10 metres (30 feet) to 100 metres (300 feet). You really cannot tell, that’s why always maintaining a safe distance (maximum) from bears is important.

One of the successes of ski area bear viewing is that based on a decade of field studies I can confidently predict which bear a group may approach and who to leave be. Bear space is defined throughout the bear’s life from experience and is never constant. Certain attributes help define bear space – sex, age, habitat type, season, and experience (i.e., with people and other bears).

Male and female bears have very different roles in the population. Females are producers and caregivers occupying small territories maintained through toleration, avoidance, scent-marking, and chasing (rarely fighting with neighbouring females). Males present dominance and genes into a population over a wide ranging area (of females). Females are more likely to become habituated or accustomed to humans and disturbance because they have the responsibility of cub-rearing and are limited in their movements. Males move freely and have more options (for habitat use) if disturbed by people.

During my 17 years of research I have never had a problem with female bears; males always maintain greater spaces or distances than females. Younger bears may tolerate people more than older bears, especially if the offspring of a mother with a smaller bear space or greater toleration passes on this behaviour. Young males (1.5 to 5 years) may also tolerate people throughout "urban habitats" to avoid dominant males in natural habitats. Bears in concentrated, high quality Whistler habitat tend to habituate to people more readily than bears in poorer quality habitats. Bears need to take advantage of available food and will benefit by tolerating people in relatively close quarters.

Bear space changes throughout seasons. Bears may be shy of people during den emergence (April-May). The habituation of human activity needs to be reinforced each season if bears are to successfully occupy valley habitat. Habituation becomes reinforced throughout the year and bear space becomes smaller, allowing more stimuli as food rewards become more frequent and physical threats are avoided.

Ski area bear viewing is a wonderful way to experience "bear space" and experiencing a good understanding for bear behaviour. Tours can be reserved at 604-932-3434.

September berry forecast

The availability of huckleberry/blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), the vital fall food for bears, is dependent on weather. If drought conditions continue into mid-September bears may lose the mountain (> 1,500-metre elev.) berry crop. Drought conditions dry out berries causing them to shrivel and drop. Berry size is also limited because during heat waves stressed huckleberry plants direct life-saving energy to the shrub not to berry size. Balanced rainfall yields plump berries and/or berries in partial shade at north and east aspects.

When huckleberries do deplete either naturally (in late September) or from excessive weather then mountain ash berries replace the huckleberry. Orange clusters of mountain ash range in great abundance from valley bottom to the sub-alpine.

Bear Encounters and Reports

If you encounter a bear close (< 20-metres) and you can see its face, speak calmly and loud enough that the bear will hear you and turn slightly to move away. Turning your body eliminates the threatening posture of facing a bear. If a bear approaches act big, noisy, and threatening – remain facing the bear and stand your ground.

If you are ever physically attacked by a black bear fight back, striking the bear in the face. To my knowledge no one has ever been injured in Whistler by a black bear.

To help with the monitoring of valley bear activity and input to conservation data you may report bear family sightings including very small (dog-size) and very large-size black bears. Thanks to everyone for their information, photos, and even stopping me in the street to contribute.

Questions, information, or bear sighting reports please call Michael Allen at 902-1660 or e-mail mallen_coastbear@direct.ca . Thanks to Pique Newsmagazine for sponsoring this bear update.

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