Tag Archives: grizzlies

Grizzly Details

The recent sighting of a grizzly bear family near Whistler, along with the ongoing scientific, political, and public awareness efforts of the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Initiative has brought the larger variety of our ursine friends back into the public eye.

We’ve written about the history of grizzlies around Whistler before, and even contemplated their return. This remains a poorly understood topic among the general public, so we recently had a chat with Claire Ruddy, Communications & Outreach Coordinator for Coast to Cascades to get the inside scoop.

A family of grizzlies on Chilco Lake, In the South Chilcotin region to the north of Whistler. Photo: Jeremy William C2C Griizzly Initiative

A family of grizzlies on Chilco Lake, In the South Chilcotin region to the north of Whistler. Photo: Jeremy William/C2C Grizzly Initiative

First off, Coast to Cascades is a regional coalition of scientists and conservation experts working towards the successful coexistence of humans and grizzly bears in southwestern BC. What makes their work so crucial is the fact that our region currently rests along the southern line of extinction of grizzly bears in North America, a population which used to extend all the way to central Mexico.

The task of stopping the further retreat of grizzly habitat now firmly rests in our hands. It helps to understand our region’s grizzlies in terms of distinct population units:

A map of the grizzly population of southwestern BC, divided into the distinct population units using 2012 provincial government data.

A map of the grizzly population of southwestern BC, divided into the distinct population units, using 2012 provincial government data.

When you see the numbers on the map and understand how vast the territories occupied by each of these population units, you start to appreciate how imperilled these grizzlies are. Unfortunately for the Garibaldi-Pitt group, an estimated population of 2 means that the sub-population to our immediate south has very little long-term viability, though there is some hope.

Like the neighbouring North Cascades sub-population, one key to long-term sustainability for critically endangered grizzlies is growing the population in neighbouring districts with more robust populations. Once this is accomplished, preserving key habitat corridors that enable migration between sub-populations can bring much-needed genetic diversity to the more isolated groups.

An encouraging example comes from the Squamish-Lillooet sub-population where the population seems to be stabilizing in large part due to decreasing industrial activity in the Toba-Bute region which has proven a boon to local grizzlies.

Grizzlies on the shores of Toba Inlet, part of the growing Toba-Bute sub-population, August 2015. Photo: Jeff Slack

Mother grizzly with cub (a second cub is off-screen) on the shores of Toba Inlet, part of the growing Toba-Bute sub-population, August 2015. Photo: Jeff Slack

Another positive development has been the growing support from Sea-to Sky local governments to encourage higher levels of government into implementing and acting upon a regional grizzly recovery plan. If all goes well, grizzly sightings in our surrounding wilderness could become more frequent in the near future.

The return of these large apex carnivores will not be without controversy, and the success of such efforts will greatly rely on cooperation and support from the general public. Avoiding grizzlies altogether is best, but Claire also emphasized how the single most important step one can take to ensure potential grizzly-human interactions remain mutually beneficial is to carry bear spray. Studies repeatedly indicate that bear spray is a more effective deterrent than firearms, and of course a non-lethal solution is always preferable.

For more info on best practices during bear encounters, check out this page from  the Get Bear Smart Society.

Hunters with two trophy grizzly bears in the Singing Pass/Musical Bumps area, ca. 1916.

Hunters with two trophy grizzly bears in the Singing Pass/Musical Bumps area, near Whistler Mountain ca. 1916.

Grizzlies in the Valley

As most of us are well aware, wildlife is constantly in flux. Species come and go; they migrate; they evolve; they become extinct. These transitions are especially evident living in Whistler, as wildlife surrounds us, so much so that one of the first things I learned when I got here concerned our ever-changing mammal population. I quickly learned that although grizzly bears once roamed our valley, they have since moved on from this social, tourist town.

mammals-of-the-alta-lake001Recently, the museum acquired the book Mammals of the Alta Lake Region of South-western British Columbia by Kenneth Racey and Ian McTaggart Cowan, published in 1935. This fantastic account eloquently outlines the various mammals that were known to exist in the Whistler (then Alta Lake) region. The account of grizzlies is slight, with only a few documented sightings before 1935; however, we know that an abundance of brown bears made their homes here in Whistler for many years before humans moved in.

Check-list-of-mammalsGrizzly bears were common to the alpine meadows and adjacent timber of the Whistler region. On June 26th, 1924, grizzlies were seen in Avalanche Pass, between Mount Overlord and London Mountain (now known as Whistler Mountain). Could you imagine seeing a grizzly around Whistler Mountain today? Of course, there is far too much excitement around the mountain for a grizzly nowadays, as brown bears require a great deal of personal space.

Grizzlyread

The book states that the latest grizzly bear tracks were sighted on December 5th, 1932, by John Bailiff; however, there have been grizzly sightings in Whistler since the book’s publishing. The most recent occurrence was in Function Junction in 1989. Sadly, the bear was shot by an RCMP officer after it displayed aggressive behaviour toward local dogs.  There are also reports that claim that the RCMP officers did not have the necessary expertise or equipment to safely tranquilize and relocate the animal.

By now it is common knowledge that grizzly bears are rarely spotted in and around Whistler, but we have also seen a great decrease in brown bears across the Sea to Sky Corridor in general over the last century. This steady decline of the grizzly population began with a vengeance during the twentieth century, and was unsurprisingly largely man-made.

Aside from Racey and Cowan’s book, the museum holds a few other accounts of brown bears in Whistler, including photographs of hunted bears, as well as a newspaper article by John Bailiff about his attempt to hunt a mother grizzly in the 1930s. Bailiff’s article is a rather upsetting read, as he takes us through his excitement at the thought of killing the maternal bear, with seemingly no compassion for the cubs alongside her. Thankfully, times have changed and continue to progress toward attitudes and laws that protect these ursine beauties that roam British Columbia.

Hunters with two trophy grizzly bears in the Singing Pass/Musical Bumps area, ca. 1916.

Hunters with two trophy grizzly bears in the Singing Pass/Musical Bumps area, ca. 1916.

For more information on bears in Whistler, and how you can be bear smart, visit the Bear Smart Society. 

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).