Whistler without bears would be like Disneyland without a big black mouse in red lederhosen - just another amusement park. According to a Whistler-Blackcomb survey of summer visitors, the most common complaint was that they didn't see a bear.
Too much human contact, however, is not necessarily a good thing. In past years an average of 20 bears a year were killed in the Whistler area, mainly bears that have been conditioned to equate humans with readily available food.
Last year, however, was a breakthrough year for bear control in the Whistler area. Although bear incidents were down 30 per cent over previous years, the RCMP and conservation officers killed just one bear all season.
Part of the credit goes to mother nature and a bumper season for berries. The other part has to go towards the creation and widespread adoption of the municipality's "bear friendly" management program. This includes bear-proof garbage and recycling cans, strict enforcement of the bylaw that regulates bear-proof containers, "bear awareness" education for residents and tourists, and a non-lethal bear management policy.
The Jennifer Jones Whistler Bear Foundation was a key player on the Black Bear Task Team that created the management program. The foundation has helped provide funds to purchase non-lethal bear management kits, sponsored a bear awareness program for the resort, and is working to involve community members and local businesses in "Bear Smart" practices.
Now, with the spring thaw just around the corner - and bear sightings slowly coming in - the JJWBF is picking up where the Task Team left off, encouraging more people to participate in the Neighbourhood Bear Watch program, and more businesses to participate in their Bear Smart business program.
"In the last year the Black Bear Task Team fell by the wayside a little and the foundation is picking up the ball and continuing with the programs," says JJWBF director Sylvia Dolson.
The Neighbourhood Bear Watch program teaches people how to eliminate backyard attractants and how to tolerate bears. Neighbourhood co-ordinators are needed to provide this information, and keep an eye out for anything that might jeopardize the safety of residents or bears.
"Ninety-five percent of bears that were shot were in residential neighbourhoods," says Dolson. "They are there for the food that's available, not for the people."
Now when authorities find a bear in a residential area they attempt to drive off the bear with non-lethal methods, including noise makers and, if necessary, rubber bullets - whatever it takes to convince a bear that they are better off foraging in the bush.
There are bylaws regarding backyard attractants, including improper storage of garbage and composting, and residents that fail to comply could be on the hook for a $150 fine. Neighbourhood co-ordinators help people avoid both bears and fines.
"The education campaign has been successful for the most part," says Dolson. "I think most long-term residents know what's what at this point, but the problem is that we have so many transient workers and tourists, that education is always an issue. It will never be finished."
The Bear Smart business program is already a success, with 30 businesses signing on in previous years. In the two days since she sent out the foundation's flyers, Dolson says she received eight new business members in the mail.
Businesses receive a sticker advertising the fact that they are bear smart once they have filled out a bear smart checklist and are found to be in compliance.
Business must agree to:
Keep all garbage indoors or in bear-proof containers, and store any other attractants in a location that isn't accessible to bears (i.e. kitchen grease)
Have a supply of bear information brochures on display.
Distribute and discuss bear information brochures with employees.
Encourage guests to use the brochures.
Encourage guests to participate in safe bear viewing activities where bears can be seen in their natural habitats (i.e. from the gondola, from the Creekside Bear Viewing Platform, or on a Bear Viewing Tour run by Whistler-Blackcomb)
Act responsibly, and follow the directives laid out by the Task Team whenever a bear is encountered. If the bear poses a threat, you may have to call the RCMP (932-3044) or conservation officer (1-800-663-9543) to handle the situation. Both are trained in non-lethal tactics, and will not destroy the bear unless it is absolutely necessary to ensure human safety.
Inform all staff of the directives.
The stickers are dated to ensure that businesses continue to be Bear Smart, and Dolson plans to audit participating businesses periodically to make sure they are in compliance.
"We are fully on board this season and we are hoping for a zero kill," says Dolson. "Right now we are the only community in B.C. where the officers are trained in non-lethal tactics."
Whistler's success has attracted the attention of other communities, and Dolson hopes to make the program available province-wide.
To participate in the neighbourhood watch or bear smart programs, contact Sylvia Dolson and the JJWBF at 905-4209.