Tag Archives: black bears

VIDEO: Bear viewing at the old dump

Among the many autumn rituals in Whistler are watching the changing colours in our surrounding forests, watching the snow line slowly move down the mountainsides, enjoying some relatively quiet time here in the village, and perhaps skipping town altogether with a fall getaway.

For many residents, Fall is a crucial time of year when they eat non-stop and try to put on weight in preparation for the long winter. No, we’re not talking about depressed mountain bikers at Thanksgiving dinner, but our local black bears of course!

Every autumn, black bears enter a physiological state called hyperphagia, which essentially means increased appetite. After having climbing up the mountainsides through the summer they often come back down to lower elevations in search of any calorie-rich foods that might be left, like mountain ash berries, or roots and greens in marshy lowlands.

In a place like Whistler, it also means a time of heightened bear-human interactions, as they are more commonly looking for food in human-occupied places. Increased diligence in securing your garbage, being aware of your surroundings when hiking or biking in the forests, and giving bears plenty of space when you do encounter them is especially important this time of year.

In Whistler we do quite a good job of co-existing with our ursine friends, and are one of only seven officially recognized “Bear Smart” communities in British Columbia. We still have our challenges, but to demonstrate how far we’ve come, here’s a video of black bears feeding at our local dump in the early 1970s.

The dump, located right in the middle of the valley where Whistler Village now stands, was open air, unfenced, and got routinely overrun with bears back then. Many long-time residents recall that it was the preferred bear-viewing spot in the valley, and it’s not hard to see why!

Today, our “dump” (actually called a Waste Transfer Station) is well-fenced in and we manage our garbage far more responsibly. Please do your part to help ensure that our local bears have a smooth transition to winter during this crucial time of year!

For more information on black bears, and how to live, work, and play responsibly in bear country, please visit the Get Bear Smart Society.

 

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.

moss campion

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!

A Bear Named Slumber

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Come out to Florence Petersen Park this Wednesday night to experience a slideshow and presentation by local bear expert Michael Allen about one of his favourite Whistler bears, Slumber.

Photograph by Michael Allen

Photograph by Michael Allen

The event starts at 9pm, and is free to attend. Be sure to bring a chair/blanket to sit on, and enjoy this journey into the world of Slumber.

Get Bear Smart

By Alexandra Gilliss, Program Coordinator/Summer Student

Having lived in Whistler for just about a month now, I was amazed to experience my first close-up sighting of a black bear during an initial outing in the bike park. The even better part is that this was just the first of several bears I would encounter. Whistler is indeed bear country, but with humans and bears living together in such close proximity, several precautions must be taken for a harmonious co-existence between the two species.

Bear

With about 900,000, the most common bear in North America is the black bear. They can be found in all Canadian provinces and territories except for P.E.I.

Problematic interactions between bears and residents have occurred since tourists first began arriving in Alta Lake in 1913. It wasn’t until 1995 that the Bear Smart Society was registered as a non-profit charity, with the mission to minimize the number of bears killed as a result of human-caused problems. Since then, the group has strived to educate the public on bear safety, and encouraged businesses to ensure all garbage and food waste is in secured containers out of reach of bears and to keep all doors closed at all times.

Bear-2

Bears are not mean or malicious, but mothers with their cubs can become quite aggressive when they feel threatened. It is important to always give them lots of space during an encounter.

Bear-4

Bears tend to avoid contact with humans, and often, hikers are not even aware when they come close to bears in the wild.

One particular story that tugged on my heart strings is that of Jeanie, Whistler’s famous black bear. With her distinct white triangle on her chest, Jeanie had been spotted in and around the Whistler village for approximately 20 years beginning in 1991, even becoming the star of her own Facebook page. In 2007, worries surrounding the bear began to arise as she had made a habit of coming into the village with her cubs in search of readily available garbage. Jeanie had become so accustomed to human activity that she even began charging conservation officers that attempted to direct her out of the village, leading many to believe she had become a public safety threat. Despite the Bear Smart Society and others’ pleas for businesses and residents to lock up food waste and garbage, the situation came to a head on October 20, 2011 when Jeanie was destroyed by conservation officers after numerous weeks of aggressive behaviour. In addressing the incident, the Bear Smart Society states, “less berries in 2011 and more competition for berry patches in the ski area, which is where Jeanie’s home range was, likely drove her to seek food in peopled areas.”

Bear-3

This bear, named “Twix” by a grade 5 student, was tagged in his left ear because of his habit of breaking into garbage bins and getting too comfortable with people.

While Whistlerites mourned the death of the local bear, the event came as a wake up call and efforts to create a community that was safe for both bears and humans increased. You’ve probably seen many of the locked garbage and recycling bins throughout the village. These systems are just one way in which Whistler has become more bear conscious. Today, Whistler is recognized as a Bear Smart Community by the province of British Columbia, meaning that the region has gone above and beyond in terms of discouraging bears from coming into the area. This makes Whistler the 4th municipality in B.C. to receive this status (the other communities being Lions Bay, Kamloops, and Squamish).

A Bear, a Cougar and a Boisterous Myrtle Philip

Every now and then a long term and frequent visitor of Whistler will grace us with their stories of this valley’s past. Gordon Cameron is one such character. As a young man, Gordon (also known as G.D.) would spend summers at Alta Lake with his family. A few years ago, Gordon wrote two letters to the museum outlining some fascinating stories from his childhood here in Whistler. One story he recalls involves a cougar, a bear, and a boisterous Myrtle Philip.

Alta Lake from Rainbow Lodge, 1944. Photograph by G.D. Cameron. Philip Collection.

Alta Lake from Rainbow Lodge, 1944. Photograph by G.D. Cameron. Philip Collection.

Firstly, to paint a better picture of Gordon and Myrtle’s relationship, Gordon explains Myrtle’s unorthodox method of teaching a young G.D. how to ride a horse. Basically, Myrtle tied Gordon’s feet together underneath the horse’s belly and let boy and animal be! The horse reluctantly traipsed around Alta Lake with the boy strapped firmly astride for most of the day, until it finally managed to shake loose the ties and buck the young Gordon into the River of Golden Dreams.

Myrtle with saddle horse and workhorse, ca. 1915. Philip Collection.

Myrtle with saddle horse and workhorse, ca. 1915. Philip Collection.

In 1934, a few years after Gordon’s unconventional horseback riding lesson, Gordon and some other boys in the area were recruited by Myrtle to fix a trail that often flooded in high run-off years. The crew got to work slashing the bushes to make the trail wider, while one of the boys held the horses. All of a sudden, one horse bolted; everyone stopped to see what was happening only to observe that just down the trail was a mean looking black bear sniffing the wind. The crew turned to their escape route and had the unpleasant sight of a large tawny cougar stalking towards them. Whilst the boys were scrambling their thoughts into some sort of action, a “whoop and a holler” was heard coming up the trail “in a slightly off-key feminine voice that would have curdled the milk.” Faced with such a vision, the bear took off straight up the mountain and the cougar took one look at the apparition coming charging down the trail and disappeared. Myrtle was so mad, she let off steam in a language that was certainly not “ladies chit-chat.”

Myrtle on a white horse, ca. 1940. Philip Collection.

Myrtle on a white horse, ca. 1940. Philip Collection.

As if we didn’t have reason enough to adore Myrtle and her courageous ways!

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 2 trophy 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).