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Hairs unlock secrets of black bear DNA



Standing in the dense forest just above the Lower Flank Trail in Function Junction, Michael Allen douses a burlap sack with runny brown fish fertilizer.

The pungent smell wafts high in the muggy air as he strings the sack up high, peels off a pair of rubber gloves, and swats away some flies.

It can be a messy job at times but this is Allen’s life’s work – studying, observing, recording and learning all about Whistler’s black bears.

Though those fishy sacks may be primitive and smelly, they are part of a high-tech research project, which is going to take his work to a whole new scientific level this summer.

The sacks are hanging above 51 bear-hair traps stretching from Emerald Estates to Function Junction in some out-of-the-way locales. Allen is collecting black bear hair samples in those traps that will be sent to a lab called Wildlife Genetics International in Nelson for DNA testing.

The goal is to get hair from as many bears as he can so he can determine the minimum black bear population in Whistler.

"I have a good idea (of the size of the population)," said Allen, who has been studying Whistler’s bears for the past 10 years and estimates the population could be around 100 bears at its peak, with fluctuations due to cub production and other factors.

"But I still don’t have the science to back it up."

The 600 to 800 hair samples collected between mid-July and mid-October should give him that science.

Last Monday was the first day to collect the hair samples. Allen was up at the crack of dawn, working his way through the bear traps. His assistant, Robyn Appleton from Simon Fraser University, was checking the traps on the west side of the valley.

Fifty feet above the Lower Flank Trail in dense forest the hustle and bustle of Function Junction carries through the trees. You can even hear the persistent ring of a phone, which makes you realize how close we live to the black bears in Whistler.

Though the traps are off the beaten track, Allen said if anyone stumbles upon one, just walk on by. They will not be harmful to dogs he said but as a precaution he recommends leashing your dog if you come upon a sign marking the bear trap.

Allen built most of these traps himself. They are small enclosures with a single strand of barbed wire strung three metres above the ground. The fishy burlap hangs high in the middle of the enclosure out of reach of any bear. It’s just there to tempt them over or under the wire to snag a piece of hair.