There are three species of bear in North America: the black bear, grizzly bear and polar bear. The most common in-and-around Whistler is the American black bear (and that’s what we’ll cover here) and it comes in various shades of black, blue-black, dark brown, brown and cinnamon.
During the summer and fall months it’s incredibly likely that you’ll come across a bear in one of Whistler’s parks, on a trail, and even in the village. Here are 5 important things you need to know to stay safe when you come across a black bear in an urban environment:
Sidebar: Black bears also come in white (but we don’t have them in Whistler) – known as the Kermode bear or Spirit Bear – and play a prominent role in British Columbia’s First Nation’s history and culture.
1. Remain calm so the bear doesn’t perceive you as a threat
Bears and humans are not naturally malicious; we are both gentle and tolerant animals. However bears and humans cannot tell each other “Hey, I’m friendly. Sorry for startling you, I didn’t see you there”, so it is very important to communicate in a way (physical and audible) that the bear can understand.
To a bear, being calm is:
– Keeping a distance and not approaching (essential in urban environments). Walking towards a bear can make it feel trapped
– Identifying yourself in a calm, appeasing tone of voice
– Backing away slowly. Do not run, scream or do anything that could be seen as a potential threat to the bear
Bears are not as unpredictable and dangerous as Hollywood or the media would have us believe. Bears show very predictable behaviour. This trait can be beneficial to people who come into contact with bears. – bearsmart.com
Being calm is the best way to communicate to the bear that you are not dangerous. This is especially important if the bear is a female with cubs.
2. Determine what kind of bear you’re looking at
It is important to know what kind of bear you’re looking at so that you can predict how it will behave. Also, as you come to understand bears more, any fear will quickly turn in to respect…and that really helps you to stay calm during an encounter.
This is a photo of a black bear in Whistler. This bear is large and its fur is shaggy and ‘grizzly’ looking. To the untrained eye, it could be mistaken for a grizzly bear. Recognising only fur colour and texture is not enough to tell a black bear from a grizzly bear: try this quiz to prepare you for an encounter bit.ly/bearidentificationtest
If you see a bear in an urban environment in Whistler it’s most likely a black bear. The human development and activity in Whistler deters grizzlies, but don’t rule them out when out hiking in the back country.
Two things that motivate a bear: food and fear
When you encounter a bear other useful things to determine are:
– Is the bear defending a food source?
The bear will protect its food, especially in the months leading up to hibernation
– Are there cubs present?
A mother bear will defend her cubs against perceived predators
3. Give the bear plenty of space and an easy escape route
Bears, like humans, have different tolerances to people and animals who invade their personal space. In the case of a bear, this is called the“critical space” and is an area around them that they may defend when a perceived threat comes along.
Animals have hearts that feel, eyes that see, and families to care for, just like you and me. – Anthony Douglas Williams
Bears are normally shy, retiring animals
Bears have no desire to interact with humans; but when you choose to enter a bear’s critical space you’re forcing them to make a quick decision about whether they perceive you as a threat.
The size of the critical space is different for every bear, but the bear’s reaction will only go one of two ways: they’ll either run or stand their ground and potentially become aggressive. Either way, if you make the (reckless) decision to approach a bear you a have a 50/50 chance that it will end badly…for you.
This is very different to being aggressive. Stand tall, look the bear directly in the eye and, in a calm but assertive tone, yell at the bear and tell it to leave: “Get out of here, bear!” (black bear only).
Black bears can cover large amounts of ground very quickly and can run upwards of 65 km/hr. If the bear sees you, and still shows no sign of fleeing, start to retreat quicker (but not running) and consider heading back the way you came or finding and alternative route around.
If you have a surprise encounter with a bear (e.g. stumble up on it in a bush) it’s more likely to react defensively. Watch out for the bear popping its jaws, lunging towards you, swatting the ground with its front paw while blowing and snorting, and “bluff charges”. These displays are intended to make you leave.
The bear doesn’t want to fight any more that you do
It is simply trying to communicate that you are too close. Continue to appear non-threatening by remaining calm. Ready your bear spray by removing the safety lock. Speak in an appeasing voice and back away, increasing your distance from the bear, and leave the area immediately.
5. Call the local conservation officer and report the sighting: if you see the bear in an urban environment
Despite Whistler being densely populated with human activity and the town’s best efforts to secure food and waste, educate visitors and residents, and bear-proof our homes and businesses, some bears are still attracted to the village and encounters and conflicts do happen.
If you come across a bear in an urban environment
Call the Get Bear Smart Society on 604-905-BEAR(2327) if you meet a bear in an urban environment, or if you experience an aggressive display or attack.
We love our bears
An aggressive action towards a human can result in the bear being destroyed. Please take the time to educate yourself on how to avoid attracting bears to your property or camp, and how to behave during an encounter so that we can avoid any conflicts between humans and our wildlife.
We’ll end with this thought:
Even though they may look and act like a big dog, a sudden miscommunication like trying to pet one may result in a sudden and unavoidable swat or bite. Bears, unlike dogs, take offense at being petted. Bears play by bear rules and know nothing of ours. Close contact between uniformed people and bears is a script for disaster. So the answer is straightforward: don’t get close. – Ben Kilham in Among the Bears