Grizzly bear sightings on the rise

Bear advocates ramp up education campaign to protect struggling species

The Conservation Officer Service (COS) is ramping up its efforts to educate the public about co-existing with grizzly bears after receiving double the reports of sightings this year compared to 2015.

While sightings are still rare — six grizzly bears were reported to COS in 2015 and around 12 were reported in 2016 — backcountry users, hunters and Sea to Sky corridor residents should still be prepared, said conservation officer Tim Schumacher. (Sightings were north and south of Whistler around Squamish and Pemberton.)

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With summer over, the major concern right now is hunters mistaking grizzlies for black bears. “We have an open black bear hunting season throughout the province of B.C.,” Schumacher said. “During the hunter education program people get the education on how to identify the different bears, but we like to be proactive so that we can prevent (grizzly bear shootings) and get as much education out there as possible.”

Often people think grizzly bears and black bears are easy to identify based on their colour, but that’s not always the case, Schumacher said. To that end, COS is distributing cards outlining the difference between the bears; grizzlies have a dished face where black bears have a straight face, grizzlies have short, rounded ears and a shoulder hump where black bears have tall, pointed ears and no shoulder hump, for example. Both bears can vary in colour.

“It takes a trained eye,” Schumacher said. “That’s why we’re trying to get people to take a look at the photos.”

The other goal of the campaign is to educate the growing number of backcountry users in the corridor. Make lots of noise when you’re hiking, carry bear spray and properly secure bear attractants, officials say.

“We advocate for people to carry bear spray,” Schumacher said. “It’s much more effective than a firearm. It’s got a wide dispersal and in panic mode it’s much more effective than trying to aim a firearm. It’s a much better outcome (for the bear) too.”

The plight of the province’s grizzly bear population has been gaining more attention recently.

In September Michael Audain — the art collector and philanthropist behind Whistler’s Audain Art Museum — announced he had launched the Grizzly Bear Foundation, a charity to protect the bears. And on Tuesday (Nov. 8) the Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society, along with Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative, will host the 2016 Symposium on Grizzly Bear Recovery in Whistler at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre. That event will feature experts on grizzly bears discussing recovery in southwest B.C.    

“There’s more and more people here and more desire to build trails and get in the backcountry,” said Johnny Mikes, field director for Coast to Cascades, who will be speaking at the symposium. “At the same time, we have bears that were really persecuted and depressed in terms of numbers starting to come back. We have a situation where bears are coming closer to self-sustaining numbers and people are wanting to go to these places. We’re at an important time now where education is key.”

Along with the same advice issued by COS, Mikes has another request for local backcountry users: don’t post photos of bears on social media identifying their location as it can attract more people to that location and lead to problems.  “As people go forward into next summer, really think about if you post photos in the location of a sighting of a bear you’re not doing that bear a favour,” he said. “You’re potentially risking that bear’s life. These bears are a threatened population.”

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