Tag Archives: black bears

Summer is the Season to Discover Nature!

Enjoying nature is a year-round activity, but summer is the best time to experience our natural environment in its full splendour. Many species have adapted to our harsh mountain landscape and long, snowy winters by laying low for much of the year. This conserves energy for the flourish of activity and abundance we see in summer.

Bears are probably our most beloved hibernators, waking from their slumbers in spring and chasing plant foods like berries up the mountainsides as the snowline recedes.  Once they reach the alpine in late summer, bears, along with hikers and other visitors, are welcomed by vast meadows carpeted in vibrant colours; alpine wildflowers who need to maximize their visibility to ensure they are pollinated by insects during the short, snowless growing season above treeline.

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Moss campion offers a burst of lavender amidst the bleak alpine scree. Photo: Bob Brett/Whistler Naturalists.

When it comes to seasonality, however, the hoary marmot, Whistler’s other mammalian mascot, takes first prize. Unlike bears, marmots live in the alpine year-round, and thus hibernate for 7-8 months of the year! This leaves them with a rather a short window to mate & reproduce, pose for tourist photos, and fatten up for the ensuing winter, so they can be quite loud and excitable.

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The Hoary Marmot dutifully poses for a photo op on Whistler Mountain. Jeff Slack photo.

The giant trees of our temperate rainforest are no different, going dormant through the winter and growing through the summer. In fact, the tree rings that we use to determine the ages of trees only exist because of this seasonal ebb and flow; the rings of light and dark matter coincide with periods of rapid and slow growth, respectively. Trees closer to the equator that lack distinct seasons have less prominent rings, or none at all.

Here at the museum, summer causes a spike in activity as well. First off, our brood of staff grows with the addition of summer students. Secondly, summertime means an increase in our outdoor, family-friendly programming. Our Valley of Dreams walking tours resumed in June and continue daily, by-donation, until the end of August. This past week we saw the return of two more family favourites: Discover Nature, and Crafts in the Park.

Now in its second summer, Discover Nature aims to educate and inspire wonder about Whistler’s amazing natural world. It is offered every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday in July and August, from 10am-4pm, at Lost Lake Park. On the lawn above Lost Lake beach we have an interactive table led by professional naturalist Kristina Swerhun. Guests will learn all about Whistler’s rich biodiversity, from bears to bacteria, and the intricate ecological web in which we live. Additionally, guided nature walks will depart from the Passivhaus at the entrance to Lost Lake Park every day at 11am.

See you outside!

The Bears are Up!

Over the past two weeks, my social media newsfeeds and photo streams have been blowing up with posts and images of bear sightings here in Whistler. Ah, it is that time again, isn’t it? With the first signs of post-hibernation being on the very last day of March when a few Instagram posts of paw prints in stale snow surfaced.

Pioneer Myrtle Philip holding Teddy the bear, 1926. Philip Collection.

Myrtle Philip holding Teddy the bear, ca. 1925. Philip Collection.

With each new bear sighting comes varying emotions: some people feel fear, others joy, and for many uncertainty. Whistler locals love sharing their bear stories, often suggesting that black bears are generally quite harmless to humans. One local, Colin Pitt-Taylor, claims he accidentally cycled into a black bear; Colin leaving the scene unharmed, and the bear leaving seemingly unfazed. Another local and avid golfer, Colin Gower, claims to have come rather close to numerous bears along the Nicklaus North golf course. This is no surprise, as black bears have settled into our golf courses, ski hills and parks (even though they’ve inhabited Whistler long before us humans decided to move in).

Today, most Whisterlites have a high level of respect for bears, and in fact, bears have been held in such high regard as far back as we can trace. Archaeological evidence suggests that bear worship (also known as Bear Cult or Arctolary) may have been a common practice among Neanderthals in the Palaeolithic periods. Bear worship did not stop there. To name a few examples: Celts believed bears to be incarnations of the goddess Artio, the Ainu people of northern Japan considered the bear to be the head of the gods, and First Nations throughout North America honour the bear with costumes, masks and images carved on totems.

Photograph by Michael Allen.

Photograph by Michael Allen.

It is clear that bears have been admired by humans throughout history, but even still, when pioneers came to settle here they began hunting and slaughtering bears, exploring new territory and clearing land for their homes. Grizzlies were virtually exterminated from the Canadian Plains and the western United States, and at this time, bears were generally regarded as human-eating monsters – a much different take on bears than our archaic predecessors might have reasoned.

Thankfully by the twentieth century, public perceptions of bears began to shift. Laws limiting hunting were enacted and residents of national parks realized the importance of coexistence. However, at this time, bears were often used as amusement; tourists would feed them and gather around the centrally located garbage dump to watch as bears fed on our waste.

Bears in the garbage dump (future site of Whistler Village), ca. 1965. Petersen Collection.

Bears in the garbage dump (future site of Whistler Village), ca. 1965. Petersen Collection.

Jump to the present day and we seem to have greatly improved on this coexistence thing. Laws and regulations have been enforced to protect bears, further limiting hunting and keeping our food and waste secured in bear-proof bins and depots. Most Whisterites and visitors have adopted a deep level of respect for our approximate 100 black bear residents, understanding these ursine beauties as independent beings, crucial to our ecosystem.

Alex Philip holds Teddy the bear, 1926. Philip Collection.

Alex Philip holds Teddy the bear, 1926. Philip Collection.

So, should we be frightened by our thick-furred residents as they appear from their long, winter slumbers? Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to be killed by a domestic dog, bees or lightning than killed by a bear. In fact, no one has ever been killed by a bear in Whistler. Furthermore, one in 35,000 grizzly bears and only one in 100,000 black bears will kill a human. As Sylvia Dolson and Katherine Fawcett describe in their book A Whistler Bear Story, bears are “gentle, with the capacity to be fierce,” “entertaining and playful, yet capable of killing,” and “your favourite cuddly stuffed animal, morphed into a massive body with sharp teeth and long claws.”

While it is true that most run-ins with bears have proven harmless, it is important to stay safe and know proper bear safety. Visit http://www.bearsmart.com/ for a great resource on how to be bear-smart!

Whistler is (Grizzly?) Bear Country.

Everyone knows that Whistler is bear country. Today, several dozen black bears live within the ski area alone. While it has been at times a rocky relationship, Whistlerites are rightfully proud of our relatively successful co-existence with local bears. (For a number of reasons, this has been an especially stressful year for our ursine friends, as you can read up on here and here.)

For the most part, our local bear population has adapted well to the expanding human presence in Whistler. Michael Allen photo.

Justified as it may be, celebrating our thriving black bear population obscures one crucial fact: Whistler is also grizzly bear country, or, at least, it very recently was. Earlier in the twentieth century it was not uncommon to see these tawny giants on the slopes surrounding Whistler, and they often wandered into the valley itself as was reported by local trapper Billy Bailiff in a 1935 provincial wildlife survey by the Royal BC Museum.

Grizzlies were most commonly encountered in the gently rolling country to the southeast of Whistler Mountain familiar to backcountry skiers and hikers as the Musical Bumps and Singing Pass. The wide expanse of open meadows and sub-alpine parkland provides a diversity of niche environmental conditions perfect for supporting an array of wildlife, big and small.

Hunters with two grizzly bears in the Singing Pass/Musical Bumps area, circa 1916-17.

The local grizzly population suffered a steady decline through the twentieth century, though the odd grizzly still does occasionally wander into developed areas in Sea-to-Sky Country, usually pressured by abnormal environmental conditions. (Click here to read about a grizzly encounter in Squamish in 2007.) While the reasons for their virtual disappearance are not simple, unsurprisingly, they are largely man-made. As local naturalist Bob Brett puts it:

The “line of extinction” as it’s sometimes called has moved, save for a couple of pockets, from Mexico north to the Pemberton Valley. Wolves, wolverines, and grizzlies are all animals that don’t do well around people, probably for the same reasons: huge home ranges, a tendency to get shot when near people, and general aversion to humans.

Sure, living with bears has its challenges but we all recognize that it is more than worth it, which raises the obvious question: could grizzlies one day reclaim some of their lost territory? Perhaps more crucially, if it was possible, would we let them?

While this most recent grizzly encounter near Squamish ended peacefully, there is still a long way to go before they are once again recognized as rightful residents alongside black bears. Of course, grizzlies are a completely different beast from their darker-haired cousins. For one, they’re bigger, hungrier, and require far larger swaths of undisturbed wild country to sustain themselves. They also require a rather different approach to conservation and management.

In 1989 a stray grizzly wandered into Function Junction where it was shot and killed by RCMP officers after it started displaying aggressive behavior towards local dogs. A June 15th 1989 article in the Squamish Citizen about the encounter reported an RCMP representative’s statement that the bear was fatally shot because local authorities did not have the necessary expertise or equipment to safely tranquilize and relocate the animal. The same article also reported on the successful relocation of a black bear that same evening by provincial wildlife officials from the Creekside area.

While it is easy to get disheartened, even cynical, when considering modern society’s seemingly unrelenting assault on the natural world, attitudes are changing (if slowly and unevenly). Plus, as this article shows, nature can be incredibly resilient.

So what’s your take on all this? Should we encourage grizzlies to return to the surrounding hills which they called home for thousands of years, or are they simply too dangerous to co-exist with us humans (despite contrary evidence in Northern BC, the Rockies and Alaska)? Have we modified the local environment too much to enable such a homecoming? Certainly these are questions that we, as a community, should be asking.

For an eloquent take on the dwindling fate of southwestern BC’s grizzlies, and human-wildlife interaction in general, see the beautifully filmed episode of The Nature of ThingsThe Last Grizzly of Paradise Valley.” (shot in the North Cascades near Princeton, not the Paradise Valley north of Squamish).