When it comes to reducing conflicts with bears in Whistler, Charlie Russell advocates doing more to ensure bears can't access garbage. A seasoned researcher with more than 40 years of experience around bears, Russell shared his stories on April 14 at the Mountain Multiplicity Show as part of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival.
As part of his research, Russell studied bruin behaviors for more than a decade in a remote eastern Russian wilderness area called Kamchatka where more than 400 bears live.
"What I went out to understand was whether bears are capable of living with us, whether we could trust them because there were these ideas that they were unpredictable, that they were inherently dangerous if they would lose fear," said Russell.
His foray into the Russian wilderness took him to a place where bears had no previous contact with humans. And according to Russell, mutual trust developed between man and bear as he spent a few months each year living in Kamchatka.
He and his research associates developed mutual trust with the bears to the point where Russell said mother bears would allow him to babysit their cubs while they wandered off for a little alone time.
The key, according to Russell, is mutual trust. He said in a place like Whistler where a diverse group of people has gathered, developing trust between humans and bears is difficult.
"As long as they are getting food, getting garbage, getting food from people's houses they're going to go for it," said Russell. "You have to tighten it up. You have to really work the garbage in a way that the bears can't get it, and forget about scaring them because it just takes too much effort."
Russell noted that Whistler has improved its waste management system over time and he praised the community for evolving the system.
While Russell lived at Kamchatka he put an electric fence around his cabin, his outhouse and his floatplane. The bears never touched his plane, and as long as the fences were charged the animals stayed out of the small areas in the wilderness that Russell claimed as his own.
"It's really impressive and amazing how trustworthy they are," said Russell.
The bear researcher wrote a book with Maureen Enns on their experiences together in Russia (Grizzly Heart: Living Without Fear Among the Brown Bears of Kamchatka) and he has also written a book called Spirit Bear: Encounters with the White Bear of the Western Rainforest.
In his blog he wrote that bears have long memories and remember conflicts they see or experience with humans.
"I personally will always be afraid to be around both grizzly and black bears that have had a lifetime of aversive conditioning, or a lifetime of been hunted," wrote Russell. "They have long and acutely good memories that might eventually be triggered by a surprise encounter into inflicting some of that violence back, especially a protective female with cubs."
Russell said he is hoping for some middle ground between people and bears that is built around humans reducing their fear of bears. The bear researcher hasn't come up with the perfect solution but he said humans could do better. He quickly followed that thought with a note that while there is room to improve, things have been getting better as humans have come to better understand bear behaviour.
"The bears can't help but get weird ideas about people when they are around a lot of people," said Russell.
He added that people who are disconnected from nature don't see what's possible when trust develops. He hopes to make a difference by talking about bears and sharing his experiences with as many people as he can reach.
Conservation officer Tim Schumacher has noted that bears are starting to come out of their winter dens now and he shared some tips and reminders to prepare for the re-awakening of Whistler's bear population.
First he recommended keeping a safe distance from wildlife.
"Keep attractants secured," added Schumacher. "Take down bird feeders, secure garbage and recycling or any products with a scent. Keep smells to a minimum. Bears confuse scents with food, any kind of a scent."
Bears are very strong and can break into enclosures that aren't secured. They will also get into garbage and recycling bins at the transfer stations if doors are left open.
"It is an offence under wildlife act to feed dangerous wildlife and you may be fined $109 if you're involved in a bear traffic jam," said Schumacher. "Keep dogs on a leash. The offence for allowing your dog to chase wildlife is $345."
Feeding wildlife can also result in a $345 fine. Problem bears or wildlife conflicts should be reported by calling 1-877-952-7277, or dial #RAPP on a cell phone. Environmental violations can also be reported to the RAPP line.