BEAR UPDATE: An educated human = a living bear By Michael Allen Black Bear Researcher Last week I was given the opportunity to present two slide shows on black bear ecology illustrating my research and providing insight to concerned public on how exactly bears live close to people. The slide shows were well received and concern was high, as usual, about increases in bear destruction and what steps should be taken to reduce this conflict. As a researcher, whose life has revolved around the annual cycle of black bears for the last 13 years, I feel obligated to communicate with the public my findings. Perhaps the most effective contribution to better human-bear relationships is public education. The product of the Whistler Ecosystem Black Bear Project, thus far, has been the implementation of various black bear education programs. I continue to receive responses to the application of bear aversive techniques in Whistler similar to those employed with 100 per cent success in Mammoth Lakes, California. So, as a follow-up to last week’s Pique Column I would like to take more time to clarify my position. First, I do not believe aversive techniques to chase bears from residential communities should dominate human-bear management options within natural bear habitat areas. It is not sound wildlife management and supports no scientific basis. In an area such as Whistler where bear habitat comprises lush green skunk cabbage swamps and concentrated berry patches interspersed amongst residential communities, the premise of chasing bears from these rich food sources is an interference with critical bear biology requirements. Black bears rely on the low elevation berries through Whistler Valley as the only abundant fall-fattening food source when mid-high elevation berries typically delay or fail from extreme weather fluctuations (too much snow, rain, and sunshine). Bears need to consume extreme quantities of berries to maintain fat reserves for a successful winter sleep and pregnancy. Preventing bears from feeding in natural bear habitats such as Tapley’s Farm, Nordic, or Alpine would degrade the health of the bear and may in fact increase their garbage-seeking behaviours. Bears should be tolerated when feeding on natural foods close to people and people should be aware of the bear’s requirement for these vital berries. Whistler’s problem remains: accessible garbage and lack of public education. No more, no less. Scaring bears away from residential communities will never solve this problem. The fact that Mammoth Lakes in California has not had to kill a bear in four years is wonderful, but it is an entirely different situation. They are dealing with only 30 bears and their valley bottom residential communities do not support high quality berry habitat, as does Whistler’s. Whistler attracts over 75 bears per year throughout the valley and adjacent mountain slopes. Whistler experiences bear activity in natural habitat close to people. When garbage is left out some bears will opportunistically feed on it. Whistler needs to educate locals/visitors on how to respond to close, natural bear activity and tolerate bears while they use our rich valley habitat. Bear management in one community is usually not applicable in another, that’s why bear research is conducted all over North America. Bear behaviour is adversely different in different locations. Weather, food habits, habitat layout, population dynamics, and human attitudes contribute to different bear behaviours. Aversive conditioning does not deal with the source of the problem, which is accessible garbage and lack of education. It deals with what happens after the bear has gotten into the garbage, and that has been Whistler’s downfall every year. The saying "A garbage bear is a dead bear" is misleading — "An educated human = a living bear" would be a more likely positive phrase. Bears habituating to people in Whistler is very safe. But, people must be willing to tolerate those bears. The only way people will ever feel reasonably comfortable around a bear is if they understand why its there and how it should be treated. Bears do become conditioned to garbage when garbage is consistently available, but they do not habituate to garbage as many people think. Many bears consume garbage in their life and go on to exhibit perfectly natural behaviours. Bears are opportunists, if garbage is available they will eat it. Deny garbage and eventually bears will get the message that it is no longer available. Occasionally bears will have to be destroyed but, if Whistler attempts to adopt a realistic bear proof and education plan, 80 per cent of the bears destroyed in the past six years could have been avoided. Bear Update columns are sponsored by Whistler-Blackcomb and Pique Newsmagazine. Anyone with questions or information about black bears may contact me at 935-1176.