By Alison Taylor
Gone are the days of hundred-hour weeks spent in the bush alongside black bears.
For more than a decade Michael Allen spent his summers with the bears, quietly watching them eat and sleep, mate and fight, play and run. He became a self-taught expert in the field, a fount of intimate knowledge about the habits and traits of the local bear population.
He never realized there would be so much demand for that knowledge. The small word-of-mouth bear tours, which began at Whistler-Blackcomb in 2000, have grown more than 400 per cent in the last seven years.
“The last 14 years, all that information, I mean, what better way to use that information than through outreach and education,” said Allen.
The tours are part of a new global wave of pure ecotourism — a form of triple bottom line business that builds social value by employing a local guide, environmental value by promoting the protection of natural ecosystems, and economic value by capturing the fastest growing, and most lucrative sector, of the tourism market.
“Each year we put more effort into it,” said Arthur DeJong Whistler-Blackcomb’s manager of mountain planning and environmental resources. “This is a type of program, because of our sensitivity to bears, we really wanted to take our time, take very small steps. So it is grassroots, it still is grassroots but I would expect it to incrementally grow well into the next decade.”
Part of the charm of the tours, which cost $189 per person, is Allen himself.
“He’s so connected to bears that our guests quickly see that connection and are deeply intrigued,” added DeJong.
Allen admits it’s ironic for someone who is more at home watching Jeanie and Marisa munch on huckleberries than sitting down to a fancy dinner party, that he should be spending more and more time with people and less with the bears he knows by name.
Take Jeanie for example.
Allen has studied Whistler Mountain’s dominant female black bear since 1996. He knows that she had two cubs in 1997 and one died.
He knows that she has had four litters in the past 10 years, giving birth to seven cubs in total. Some of those cubs, like Juniper, born in 2004, have now bred too. Allen is waiting to see if Juniper will emerge from her den this year with a cub or two of her own.
And he knows that Jeanie gets bothered by the popularity of the bike park, which overlaps her territory, so much so that sometimes she crosses the highway to the Whistler Golf Course to graze in relative peace.
That’s just Jeanie adapting to her changing environment.
Black bears, Allen has come to learn, have a remarkable ability to adapt to their ever-changing world.
Nowhere is that more evident than at a ski area.
The bear tours take place on busy Whistler Mountain, where thousands of mountain bikers hurtle down the hill throughout the summer, where Olympic organizers are preparing runs for the alpine competitions, where Whistler-Blackcomb works to improve its product with new chairlifts and gondolas.
“It’s not your typical wildlife viewing operation that you would see in a real remote setting,” admitted Allen. “But what it teaches people is it teaches them almost a new age bear, a bear that has learned to adapt and live in a rapidly changing environment that Whistler is and has been since the mid-90s.”
The very nature of a ski operation, with its wide swathes of cleared land, is the most fundamental change for the black bear, allowing the animal to come out of the forest to a wide open space.
On the mountain, as on the golf courses, the bears find a smorgasbord of enhanced natural food, and so, they adapt to eating in the open space.
“In a way, the ski area has created an outdoor classroom or arena for you to see bears so why not take advantage of that, make something good of that?” asked Allen.
And while it means that he has less time for solo excursions into the forest, the tours give Allen the perfect opportunity to monitor and record the resident mountain bears in a systematic way.
He is compiling a bear identification program by photographing the bears.
“I’m out there teaching people about bears full time and this is what I do as a profession,” he said.
With an ironic smile he admits: “For not really being a people person, it’s kind of funny the job I ended up having.”
The bear tours begin again on May 15.
As he has for the past several years Michael Allen will write a bear column for Pique Newsmagazine, updating the community on the activities of black bears throughout the summer.