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How to stay bear smart in Whistler

Whether you live in a vehicle or walk your dog in bear country, here are some tips to help protect Whistler’s black bears

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Last weekend, Whistler lost its second black bear of the year due to human-bear conflict.

Despite issuing a wildlife alert and several attempts to haze the bear away, the animal was destroyed after it climbed atop a picnic table in Rainbow Park with people present. As Conservation Officer Service Sgt. Simon Gravel explained following the incident, the bear exhibited severely habituated and food-conditioned behaviour, and was therefore a risk to public safety.

As of Aug.14, the local Conservation Officer Service had already received 32 calls about bears in Whistler this month—more than in both May and June of this year.

As fall approaches and bear activity begins to ramp up in the Valley, Pique caught up with Nicole Fitzgerald, Whistler coordinator for the Get Bear Smart Society, for some tips on how to help prevent bears from becoming habituated to humans and non-natural food sources—therefore preventing any more unnecessary bear deaths this year.

Attractants

If you’ve lived in Whistler for longer than a week, you’ve likely been educated on the importance of securing and properly disposing of bear attractants like food, garbage and recycling. Many of the calls to COS and the Get Bear Smart Society also deal with people leaving out coolers, barbecues not being cleaned, or fruit attractants in neighbours’ yards.

But why is this so important? As Fitzgerald explained, bears need to feed for about 15 hours and consume 20,000 calories a day to gain enough weight for hibernation.

“This breaks down to a bear needing to eat 78 pounds of blueberries … or 25,000 tent caterpillars, or one picnic basket,” she said. “Bears are just going to be bears, and their first instinct is going to be survival.”

Living in vehicles

Whistler’s debilitating housing crunch has prompted more than a few residents to seek shelter in trailers, camper vans or other vehicles.

But considering bears’ sense of smell is seven times stronger than that of a bloodhound, keeping food inside your home on wheels has the potential to become a big problem.

“There have been a few reports of people living in vehicles, attracting bears into neighbourhoods. It’s really important for people not to sleep in closed spaces with food, whether it’s a tent or a vehicle,” Fitzgerald said.

Out in the open, both bears and humans are more comfortable and able to gage each other’s behaviour, she said. But in a confined space, “everything escalates.”

Furthermore, research has shown that animals’ predatory instincts kick in when they hear wheezing sounds, Fitzgerald explained. “You could apply that to someone sleeping in tent or a car.”

While Fitzgerald acknowledges there’s “no perfect solution” for those living in their vehicles who want to keep food handy, she suggests keeping food and other attractants at least 100 metres away from sleeping quarters—ideally in a hoisted sac. If you do choose to take the risk and keep food in your vehicle, she suggests choosing sealed food, like cans.

On the road

It’s common to see bears grazing alongside highways and other busy roads in the area. While some well-intentioned motorists might honk in an attempt to haze the bear away, Fitzgerald advises against it.

“People think they’re going to be scaring it off of the highway into the bushes, but often you can startle the bear right into traffic, or the honking distracts other motorists.”

She also reminds motorists not to stop on the side of the road to view, take photos or feed wildlife. If they do, “people will face a fine under the BC Wildlife Act.”

Safe viewing practices

When it comes to watching and taking photos of bears, Fitzgerald said the Get Bear Smart Society, “can’t stress enough about safe viewing practices.”

Since public safety remains everyone’s first priority, Fitzgerald reminds Whistler’s residents and visitors that bears need to be given space—“seven school busses to be exact,” she said.

“You always want to give a bear space, ensure that you’re at a safe distance—bears are incredibly fast runners, they’re faster than Olympic sprinters.”

If you’re in a safe position, she also advises giving the bear a negative experience, using household items like pots, pans and spoons to make noise. “Hit the pot and pan, make as much noise as possible, scream and yell at the bear. You can think of it like scolding a dog… bears are very intelligent animals. Their intelligence has been likened to that of the great apes. If they have a number of negative experiences from humans, they’ll think it’s not worth the risk of going into that public space again.”

As she explained, each time a bear encounters a human and either receives a food reward or isn’t challenged increases likelihood of the animal being killed.

“People can go to take a photo and they think, ‘Oh, it’s just once.’ But then another tourist comes, or another local comes, and it builds up, and that bear begins to learn, ‘oh, well, humans aren’t so scary’ … It leads to bears becoming more comfortable around people, and once they become more comfortable around people they start infringing on public spaces.”

Pets and bears

Giving bears space extends to your four-legged family members, as well. Whether in a residential area or in the backcountry, Fitzgerald reminds dog owners that off-leash pups are a safety concern for everyone involved.

When an off-leash dog aggravates a bear, “a deadly dance begins,” Fitzgerald explained. “The bear might tolerate dog barking away for a while, but after a while it will confront the dog, and that dog will run back to their owner. You can guess who will become the next target.”

The Get Bear Smart Society recommends bringing your pets to one of Whistler’s three dog parks for their fill of off-leash outdoor activity.

Reporting

The public is urged to report any bear sightings throughout Whistler to the COS at 604-905-BEAR or 1-877-952-7277.

Early reporting enables the COS to try to change these bears' behaviour with non-lethal methods like hazing, before that behaviour escalates in a manner that poses a risk to public safety, according to the COS.

After calling the RAPP line, Fitzgerald also suggests following up with an email or phone call to the Get Bear Smart Society. “This gives us the opportunity to look at the situation, to ask the questions ‘what went wrong?’ and ‘how could we have avoided this situation?’ or ‘how could we have done better?’

“As educators that gives us the opportunity to create new programming (and) get a better understanding of what challenges the community is facing in regards to coexisting with bears … The best way we can create programming and education is understanding the bigger picture of what’s going on, so the public can be a huge help in sharing their exposure of experiences with bears to help us create stronger, more effective programming.”

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