Bears coming out of hibernation

Municipality receives funding for Bear Aware position

Despite what seems like the renewal of winter this week, Whistler residents are being asked to prepare for the awakening of the local black bear population.

The emergence from hibernation comes at the same time the municipality has received funding to hire a Bear Aware community coordinator for Whistler. This is the fifth year that the B.C. Conservation Foundation has subsidized a community coordinator position in Whistler.

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The Bear Aware program is aimed at educating people on how to act around bears, and what they can do to make sure that bears don't become habituated to human contact.

"This is a great program that provides the basics of what it means to live in a Bear Smart community," Heather Beresford, the municipality's manager of environmental stewardship, said in a press release.

"It's great that the funding has been received," said Sylvia Dolson of the Get Bear Smart Society. "It's important that people continue to be educated about bears, especially in this area."

According to local bear researcher Michael Allen, four black bears have come out of hibernation so far this spring, despite the snow and winter weather that seems to be sticking around longer than usual this year.

The bears' early emergence could be due to a bad berry season last year - something that could have a more dire effect on bears than people may realize.

Allen explained that berries are one of the primary ways that bears fatten up prior to hibernation, and because 2010 had such a poor berry crop, bears may have gone into hibernation skinnier than normal.

"That means bears may burn through their fat deposits quicker this year, because as soon as the fat is depleted, the body starts to burn the muscle, and that's very dangerous for the bears."

It's then that bears will either wake up and begin looking for food in spite of winter conditions, or they will go back to sleep and come out later at a risk to their health, he said.

"It's then that we see the bears moving around sort of emaciated, and because they have so little muscle, their bodies can start going into shock and they can die."

Because bears may be skinnier and hungrier than normal this year, Allen wants residents to start preparing their habits accordingly.

"Bird feeders are a big concern," said Allen. "People like to feed birds and squirrels in the winter, but bears love that seed mixture too. So people need to start thinking about packing those away pretty soon, as well as making sure they're garbage is secure."

Dolson agrees: "With the heavy snow pack there's a concern that there's nothing natural for them to eat right now."

She suggested that as bears begin to wake up they will begin searching for food wherever they can get it, which may very well include bird feeders and garbage.

However, the biggest concern for both Allen and Dolson are the large patches of clover that run alongside the Sea to Sky Highway. According to both Allen and Dolson, the areas beside the highway were re-vegetated with clover after the upgrade project. Clover is one of the favourite foods of black bears.

"Clover is highly nutritious for bears," explained Dolson. "So what we see are more and more bears drawn towards the highway, and that can end badly for the bear."

According to Dolson, 11 bears were killed on the highway last year -more than any previous year.

"People will stop right in the middle of Highway 99 and they'll jump out of their car and take a picture right in the middle of traffic. It's crazy," said Allen. "Don't get out and watch bears along the highway. It's dangerous for the bears, it's dangerous for the people and it's dangerous for traffic."

Both Allen and Dolson would like to urge anyone driving along the highway to keep driving when they see a bear.

"The best thing to do is to keep driving," said Dolson. "Enjoy the fact that you saw a bear, but don't stop or pull over."

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