Best way to help bears in Whistler? Keep your distance and scare them away

Bears are curious creatures. Depicted in children’s books as warm and cuddly mammals with oh-so-cute ears, it’s no surprise that when people spot Ursus americanus (American black bear) their first instinct is to attract attention of others (“Hey look, it’s a bear!”) and start taking photos.

The problem is, unless these onlookers have a telephoto lens handy on their camera, moving close enough to get a decent photo of the bear is going to do more harm than good.

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Bears in the Village should not be approached. The best thing is to scare them away

“People have a tendency to want to approach (the bear) and take pictures,” says conservation officer Simone Gravel, who is based in the Ministry of Environment field office in Squamish and responds to human-bear conflicts in Whistler and throughout the Sea to Sky Corridor. “I understand that, they’re nice looking animals and people want to update their Facebook page with a nice picture of a bear. But it’s definitely something that contributes to habituating the bear to human presence. The best solution is to walk away from the area and let the bear move on.”

Bears in Whistler
Attractants such as garbage are the biggest reason bears approach urban areas

The bears in Whistler are currently experiencing a bit of a dilemma. An overly warm summer has produced the worst berry crop in 22 years with the fruits ripening around three to five weeks earlier than normal. With the berries all but depleted on the mountains and Whistler having no salmon in its water ways, the bears have retreated from the alpine in order to scour the valley for food. Gravel only received eight calls of bear complaints during the month of August but then received over 30 calls in first week of September alone. That means there will be bears in your backyard, bears in the village, bears on the golf courses and bears in the public parks.

“If the bear is undesirable in the location, let’s say in a small yard, then you can defensively (deter) the bear,” says Gravel. “Clap your hands, make yourself very big and make a lot of noise to try to chase the it away, all of this while keeping your distance of course. I wouldn’t encourage people to chase after the bear.”

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Whistler’s trail hierarchy. Yield to bears | photo Jase Rodley

When a bear in Whistler wanders into the Village, members of the public – be they locals or visitors – can become seemingly paralyzed by a sort of bystander effect. The bear isn’t bothering anyone, so people think it’s okay to form a crowd, take photos and eagerly show their children this majestic mammal. This becomes the most dangerous situation for bears, especially if the crowd starts to encircle them and cut off their escape route. If the bear at any point feels threatened, it will try to run and can swipe anything in its way with powerful limbs and big claws. And as many people in Whistler now know, once a bears shows any sign of aggression towards humans, it will most likely be put down. That means being shot by a conservation officer, whose number one priority is to ensure the safety of humans from wildlife. To put a number on that, 11 bears in Whistler had to be destroyed in 2014 alone.

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Bears are a common sight in the Whistler Bike Park

If you see a bear in an urban area and want to help it live, take the stance of tough love by scaring it away. You may get booed by a crowd of eager onlookers, but just remind everyone that it’s the best chance to save the bear’s life. If a bear is posing a safety concern in any way, call the Get Bear Smart Society on 604-905-BEAR(2327).

It is the responsibility of residents and visitors alike to ensure attractants are kept to a minimum in order to discourage bears approaching dwellings. Do your part to reduce bear-human conflicts.

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