Whistler Black Bear Project
From 2000-2004, the ski area bear viewing program has positively identified and recorded 2,400 locations of over 60 individual known black bears on Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.
And equally important, over 2,600 people have been educated directly on bear behavior and ecology. Non-evasive bear viewing continues to monitor population dynamics and provide "hands-on" field education opportunities to residents and visitors of Whistler.
Home to two large mountainous environments, ski area bears teeter along the edge of wilderness and front-country. Bears have the best of both worlds Ñ connectivity from wild, undisturbed habitats of Garibaldi Provincial Park to the enhanced food concentration along Whistler-BlackcombÕs ski trails.
Ski trail development benefits bear foraging on easily digested green-up during spring, to required protein intake of black carpenter ants from rotten logs and tree stumps in summer, to the dense berry-producing shrub-dominated habitats in fall.
In 2000, Whistler Blackcomb environment planner Arthur DeJong and I initiated the ski area bear and wildlife viewing program.
Starting out with one vehicle and daily, low-impact seasonal tours, the program has gone from 200 people per year to over 900 people. Our goal is simple Ñ to create an urgency about bears Ñ that people want to watch and learn about, and leave our tours with a better understanding of "real-time" bear behavior.
We are in fact just another vehicle along the ski areaÕs summer access road travelling amongst vehicles used by lift maintenance, snow-making, the Bike Park, and other mountain staff that work to maintain the healthy operation of the ski area. We are non-evasive. That is our mandate. The bears always come first.
In the front-country of Whistler, bears have learned to tolerate people and related activities. Habituation should not imply dangerous bear behavior but an adaptation to utilizing clumped food sources in front-country environs. Bears experience trains, vehicles, industrial equipment, hummers, ATVÕs, dirt bikes, mountain bikes, joggers, hikers, dogs, and music daily. Arterial noise of human origin from the resort makes bears used to people/areas directly and indirectly every single day.
Our job is to be aware, understand, tolerate, and keep the dangerous attractants contained that will lure bears into dangerous situations.
On this cool and sunny morning bear excursion with six clients originating from Utah, Minnesota, Texas, and Vancouver we begin our ascent of Blackcomb Mountain. As we pass the trees cut down around Base II for the development of the Olympic Sliding Centre people ask the obvious question Ñ how does development in Whistler impact the bears? This question provides an opportunity for me to set the stage for the tour.
Traditional bear viewing in North America has always been at salmon-spawning streams or tidal pools/estuaries where there is little interaction with the human environment. The unique premise for ski area bear viewing is that people observe "real-time" bear activity in a dynamic environment.
I have been here observing and living a bearÕs life for the past 12 years and what better way to show people how Whistler lives successfully with black bears.
People see all sides of the bearÕs world Ñ hurdles they must overcome, the rewards of adaptability, and the unique personalities each bear has adopted living near Whistler.
We round the last switch-back before the climb to mid-station (1,250-metres elevation), to find a beautiful sight of two black bears grazing on a glistening green slope with a large snow-patch backdrop.
This has always been the greatest sight for me all these years, and the one that really does showcase spring in Whistler.
We immediately pull to the side of the road. First things first Ñ bear identification. At 300 metres, powerful 10x40 binoculars reveal two adult females, both known bears. I am able now, after 12 years of intensive research, to consistently identify all known (previously identified) bears in Whistler.
After identification, the activity, location and elevation are recorded for future reference.
Clients hunch forward in their seats with anticipation. We drive another 100 metres closer and shut down. Everyone quietly gets out of the vehicle.
The morning is bright and crisp. The air is as it has always has been in the mountains of Whistler Ñ the best.
The bears continue to graze glancing occasionally at this small huddle of human interest. The larger female is Marisa, the first female identified on Blackcomb in 1995 and the smaller female is a young adult. They graze together within three metres of one another; then engage in recognition and a tussle.
This is a rare occasion in bear viewing Ñ to see a mother and past daughter interact. I think I am more excited than any in the group of smiling clients. The bears break apart and continue grazing while I run through explanations of female behavior and biology.
ItÕs like a textbook come to life. The group becomes quiet as the bears slowly graze within 80-metres of us. No one moves from this tight huddle as I continue to speak, describing the situation. The moment is perfect for explanations of bear avoidance, body language, and encounter safety.
Marisa is limping, favoring her front right leg and paw. The group voices concern, asking the inevitable Ñ canÕt you help her? I answer no, it is her life not ours. ThatÕs something people must strive to understand about wild, healthy bear populations.
More times than not bears overcome, adapt, and survive their injuries. Last fall in early October Marisa suffered an unknown injury during a three-day period when I did not observe her. When located she was limping, dragging her right foreleg. Her leg was not used for nearly a month.
During winter denning the injury, which was likely a fracture, healed but not completely straight. She continues to limp, but the leg now is at least weight-bearing.
Marisa is at least 15 years old. The bears cross the road and continue grazing in a dense carpet of dandelion flowers and horsetail. Our time with these large grazing mammals lasts over 35 minutes.
For many people who come on these tours, it is their best experience from British Columbia.
To go bear viewing please contact me with any questions at 604-902-1660 and contact Whistler Blackcomb reservations at 604-932-3434 (Press 2). Tours run 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. from May 15 to Oct 31.
Many thanks to people reporting their bear sightings. ItÕs interesting to see how residents and visitors to Whistler are progressing with their understanding and interpretation of bear activity. The bear count is up to 45 black bears (minimum number). If you are experiencing aggressive bear behavior or wish to report improperly stored garbage please call the BC Conservation Service at 1-800-663-WILD.
Aggressive behaviors are defined as bears approaching buildings, vehicles, and people. The root of human food-conditioning in Whistler bears is accessible garbage. It is crucial that we break this link and maintain consistent proactive bear proof management of human-food attractants.
Bear sightings can be reported to me at 604-902-1660 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks to Pique Newsmagazine for sponsorship of Bear Update columns.