Bear Update: Whistler Black Bears in the UK "You won't find any black bears in England Mr. Allen," advised the British customs officer. "Oh I don't know about that," I replied. "I bet I can find some somewhere." I turned to grab my back pack and caught the officer looking at me rather suspiciously. Never kid a customs officer — especially one that looks like a tall mean Mr. Bean. By Michael Allen Black Bear Researcher I did find black bears in England. In fact, they were Whistler Mountain bears and they appeared as real as that evening Jeff Turner had filmed them. From March 1998 through January 1999, Jeff (River Road Films Ltd.), the astute veteran of Canadian grizzly bear and wolf documentaries, accompanied me on excursions of field research into the ecology of Whistler black bears. Mother with cub grazed and wrestled along the large screen monitor in the studios of the British Broadcasting Corporation's Wildlife-on-One headquarters in Bristol. Here was the home of the best wildlife filmmakers in the world, the BBC's Natural History Unit. The talented crew of this unit produced the BBC's Natural World series, documentaries describing the natural history from almost every corner of the planet. As the film unravelled the secrets of Whistler black bears and the unusual person who studies them, I began to feel a little tense. To see yourself, large as life, trying to fit alongside a wild majestic black bear, was somewhat awkward. A wave of panic began to stir — were we delivering the proper message to people about black bears? I wondered how in the hell I ever ended up here. Just the previous afternoon I was head-first in a bear den — where it was safer. Feeling exposed by my sudden uneasiness, I glanced around the room at the assembled team of film editors, sound engineers, producers, and executive producers. I took a deep breath and said "Maybe you don't really need me in this film, after all it's about bears, not me." They all laughed. I didn't know what to think. The executive producer for the film assured me this was the approach to take, to have a human who's almost on the same level as the black bear. A sort of facilitator or spokesman for the bears to the viewers. After spending some time (more like countless hours) going over the footage I realized these people were dedicated to producing only the finest quality in wildlife documentaries and certainly portrayed Whistler black bears in their true light: as resourceful, tolerant, maternal creatures. Jeff explained that people would respond and more importantly, understand black bears easier with my presence in the film than without. On one of the many tea and biscuit breaks (I preferred the pint breaks) I took a stroll through the narrow corridors of the Natural History Unit. The BBC building in its entirety is about three blocks long, and very old. Everything in England is old. You can't travel more than a block without re-living hundreds of years of history. Framed along the walls was without a doubt the best photography I had ever seen: photo after photo illustrating filming projects of the BBC's Natural World series. From India's Bengal tigers to the Arctic wolves of Ellesmere Island, or from the secretive lives of serval cats of Africa's Serengeti National Park to the world's largest leatherback sea turtles in French Guyana. And now: the shy, nurturing, adaptable black bear of the Coast Mountains in British Columbia. Someone walking by asked me if I had some slides for the next spot. The feeling of prestige was undeniable. This film is not specifically about Whistler and its bears. It is the story of one person's relationship with black bears and how this closeness offers an in depth look into the lives of black bears which live under the influence (good and bad) of man. The film follows a bear researcher who in turn follows the activities of two bear families amongst other individual bears. The footage is perhaps some of the best ever filmed on North American black bears, especially the mother-cub sequences. The BBC's Natural World series In the Company of Bears will air this fall in the United Kingdom and next winter on the U.S./Canadian Discovery Channels. Bears emerging Back in Whistler, as bears emerge from their dens during March through May they are not typically starving, as so commonly perceived. It takes a couple of weeks for a bear to adjust its physiology, to pass its fecal plug, and to consume food. Younger bears (1-4 year olds) may appear thin, resembling a skinny dog due to their small body size and the likelihood that they entered dens underweight. If bears are not sufficiently fat when entering dens they will burn up more calories surviving the winter and will emerge thinner than usual. In extreme situations of when high-fat food (berries or fish) is not available in the fall, bears may starve in their dens. In the case of adult females, pregnancies will abort if additional fat reserves for rearing cubs are not present. Bears lose 15-35 per cent of their body weight during the 4-6 month winter dormancy period. Early spring foods are Salix catkins (pussy willows), skunk cabbage, grasses, horsetail, and clover. Some bears have adapted to emerging earlier because of the availability of garbage at the landfill and throughout Whistler valley. Due to a deeper than normal winter snow pack, currently all of the lower ski slopes’ (625-1,000 metre elevations) early spring bear foods are buried by 50-200 cm of snow. Bears typically begin grazing snow-free patches along ski trails in mid-late April, with peak grazing from May through June. Ski area bears will either descend to the valley to feed at swamps or will be forced to venture close to day lodges, lift huts, and valley garbage sources until ski trails green-up. Most ski area bears are not garbage conditioned and consume garbage only under stressful situations. Education, non-lethal bear deterrent methods, and bear proof garbage containment continues to be employed with success in the ski area. The key for black bear conservation in Whistler is to contain your garbage, learn about bears, and tolerate their natural activities in close proximity to our way of life. Anyone with questions about black bears can contact me at 894-5576. Whistler black bear research and education is sponsored by Whistler-Blackcomb Mountains. The purpose of the Bear Update columns is to increase awareness of local black bear activity for residents and visitors to the Whistler area.