Whistler bear aversion study ends

Researcher to carry on more limited work; results to be published this fall

A Whistler-based bear-aversion study that was initially pegged to last three to five years has ended after four years, a victim of a funding shortfall that's at least partly a result of the sagging economy.

Lori Homstol, a Masters student at the University of Alberta who has been leading the study, on Monday (April 20) said she's in the process of writing up her final report and planning to defend her thesis this fall. She'll also present preliminary findings at an international bear conference in Reno, Nev., at the end of May.

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The study, carried out from 2005 to 2008, aimed to determine whether the various forms of aversive conditioning -including having dogs chase bears away from built-up areas, hitting bears with rubber bullets and making loud noises with bear bangers and such - are effective ways to dissuade bears from seeking non-natural food sources and, potentially, coming into conflict with humans.

Homstol, who plans to return to Whistler in the next few days to carry on with more limited research - details were still being finalized this week - said that while it's unfortunate that the larger study has come to an end, she thinks the data collected over the past four summers will prove useful to the B.C. Conservation Officer Service and others who hoped to use the results to guide future bear-management decisions.

It would have been nice to have a fifth year, but it's not the end of the world, she said during a telephone interview from Edmonton. We've certainly gotten a lot of data and we should be able to help the Conservation Officer Service in deciding when it's appropriate to use aversive conditioning. One of the premises of the research was how effective is aversive conditioning -until this point, there was only anecdotal evidence, but no scientific research on how effective it is.

The preliminary data shows that aversive conditioning does increase bear wariness. If you just leave them alone, their behaviour escalates, but if you do use aversive conditioning they do tend to stay away more.

Homstol received support from the B.C. Conservation Foundation, the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, Mountain Equipment Co-op, the Vancouver Foundation, TD Canada Trust, Shell Environmental Fund, Carney's Waste Services and others for the first four year of the research. While a couple of funders were willing to continue, the most significant source - the B.C. Conservation Foundation, which provided money for salaries for the research team -dried up this year, Homstol asid.

With a lot of these organizations, it's their policy not to fund salaries, and we can't live off of nothing, she said. We understand that many organizations can't just give money to the same projects over and over; they have to spread it around to other worthy organizations.

Homstol said those involved in bear management efforts worldwide have expressed keen interest in the research. She expects that the study will help inform future efforts in parts of the world where people have an interest in co-existing more harmoniously with bear populations.

I've been getting inquiries from as far away as Japan, so what's going on in Whistler has implications for all eight species of bears in the world, she said.

She said that while the number of human-bear conflicts in Whistler is still too high - officers shot 12 bears in 2007 and 11 in 2008 after the animals were deemed a threat to public safety - progress is being made on the management of garbage and other attractants here.

At the same time, Whistler still has a ways to go before it achieves BearSmart status according to criteria set out by the B.C. Ministry of Environment, she said.

In the future, communities who are going to do aversive conditioning are probably going to have BearSmart status, and to do that you have to have really good control of your attractants, Homstol said.

Whistler has done a lot of good things, and things have gotten better since I've been in town, she said. There have been improvements, and Sylvia (Dolson of the Get Bear Smart Society) has done a lot of this, in helping stratas get their garbage sheds bear-proofed. And the new garbage bylaw is another step in the right direction.

But we really need to have a bear-proof waste system that everyone can use, whether they have a car or not, and I don't know how we're going to stop shooting bears in town unless we get control of our attractants.

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