LOCAL ANIMAL - GRIZZLY BEAR
Of all the inhabitants of the Whistler area, grizzly bears are at the top of the food chain — the most feared and enigmatic of what are sometimes referred to as “charismatic mega-fauna.” While sightings of grizzly bears are exceedingly rare, they do occur in backcountry regions. Before European contact, the grizzly bear was found in vast swaths of North America from Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. “Hunting and habitat fragmentation caused their ranges to radically shrink, pushing them farther north to intact forests. Grizzlies now occupy only two per cent of their historical range in the continental United States,” according to the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative (C2C) website.
B.C. is one place where efforts are underway to protect and enhance the populations that remain. The B.C. government outlawed the grizzly bear hunt in December 2017, and in western Canada, grizzlies are listed as a species of “special concern,” according to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Since 2013, C2C has been at the forefront of efforts to apply a science-based approach toward protection of grizzly populations in six regions of southwest B.C. Johnny Mikes, C2C’s Whistler-based field coordinator, said up-to-date information from provincial biologists — who track grizzlies through GPS collaring and DNA sampling — is important in helping C2C educate the public about the need for land-use decision-making that minimizes the likelihood of human-grizzly bear conflicts and grizzly bear deaths.
“People generally want to do the right thing, but often they just don’t know what’s there and what to do in response to that,” said Mikes. “So, we need to have all the information before deciding to put trails in, for example, then campgrounds; and if you do, how to manage your food. You want to be planning it so that you’re not putting bears or humans in danger because of those projects. The scientists, the biologists, have been really generous with their time with us. We try to make all our work science-based, so their cooperation is vital to our work.”
According to C2C, the grizzly population in the Squamish-Lillooet area — including the Callaghan and Soo valleys west of Whistler and up to the Ryan River drainage west of Pemberton — is estimated at 59 bears. In the Garibaldi-Pitt area, bounded on the west by Highway 99 and on the east by the Pitt River northeast of Vancouver, the estimated population is just two bears. Bears do occasionally move across the highway, Mikes said, but the more geographically isolated a small population is, the more likely it is to wink out of existence because of natural or human-caused deaths such as vehicle collisions, shootings or illegal poaching. For that reason, it’s sometimes necessary to relocate bears to ensure that they can interact and breed.
The home territories of grizzly and black bears often overlap, and that can lead to conflicts. “In general, it’s fair to say that grizzly bears are dominant, but you can have a large male black bear that’s a threat to a smaller grizzly bear and her cubs,” Mikes said. “There’s a certain density of roads and traffic in a given area that will tend to make grizzlies venture further into the backcountry. In general, they are less tolerant of human presence than black bears, and they tend to be more defensive of their cubs.”
Grizzlies can be identified by their larger, broader heads and the broad hump in the shoulder area. Both grizzly and black bears can be black, cinnamon-coloured or shades in between. If you spot either species, maintain a respectful distance, back away while maintaining eye contact and consider yourself lucky to have viewed such a wild and majestic creature. For information about C2C, visit coasttocascades.org.