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Whistler’s Bears: With Local Expert Michael Allen
Local Knowledge

Whistler’s Bears: With Local Expert Michael Allen

Meet Our Favourite Locals – Whistler’s Bears

Spring has sprung in Whistler. After months of wonderfully wintery weather it’s time to emerge from hygge hibernation to soak up the spring rays. While it may have felt like an eternity, your seasonal slowdown is nothing compared to the hibernation experts – our local bears.

With the snow quickly melting from our mountain slopes Whistler’s bears are staring to emerge from their winter dens. In anticipation of their arrival we took this time to catch up with local bear expert Michael Allen. Read on for the inside scoop on our local bears and some incredibly helpful tips for being bear safe in Whistler.

Mother bear and her two cubs in the forests of Whistler B.C.
Going anywhere with the kids can take twice as long. Can you relate? PHOTO MICHAEL ALLEN

Can You Tell Us a Little Bit About Yourself and the Work That You Do Surrounding Bears in Whistler?

I have been studying black bears at Whistler for 28 years now (1994-2021). I am not a formally trained researcher, just a guy that’s interested in bears. Ever since I was a kid, always had an interest in big cats and bears. I came from the West Kootenays where I worked summers for the Forest Service and on fishery projects. 

I started collecting data on black bears on my own, by observing them at landfills and orchards along the Columbia River. From earlier observations, I found I could recognize individual bears from differences in their color, morphology of head, ears, and body, markings on neck and chest, and scars or injuries.

I soon expanded to include habitats where bears would concentrate to feed each season – skunk cabbage swamps in early spring, golf courses and ski slopes in spring and summer, and berry patches in fall. After 5 years, I had a good estimation of bear abundance surrounding Whistler including numbers of mating pairs and family groups.  

In the spring, summer and fall you can usually find me venturing up Blackcomb Mountain in the early mornings or late afternoons guiding Bear Viewing Tours or sharing my knowledge at local talks.

Mother bear and two babies in Whistler
We’re proud to support Michael so he can capture precious bear moments. PHOTO MICHAEL ALLEN

To support Michael’s work and to help him capture more stunning images of our local bears the Fairmont Foundation funded two high-resolution Reconyx cameras. We’re constantly amazed at the incredible moments and insights into our local bears he is able to share in his images.

What kinds of bears live in Whistler? Can you give us an idea of the population numbers?

The last time I did a formal survey I counted a minimum of 48 black bears in Whistler. I have never captured a grizzly bear but sightings have occurred in the Callaghan and Rainbow valleys.

Black bear sleeping in the forest in Whistler B.C
One of many relatively mild mannered black bears in Whistler. PHOTO MICHAEL ALLEN

Curious how to tell black bears and grizzly bears apart? Whistler’s Get Bear Smart Society has a fantastic resource page outlining the differences between them and what to look for. Learn more here.

When can we expect the bears to wake up from hibernation?

Black bears wake up in April. Males emerge first in early April followed by females in late April. The last bears to emerge are mothers with cubs-of-the-year (born in January).

Mother bear and her yearling in Whistler B.C.
Mya with her mini-me yearling. PHOTO MICHAEL ALLEN

We’ve All Seen Cartoons of Bears Eating Honey Pots and Picnic Baskets, but What Do Bears Actually Eat?

Black bears have 3 major food groups: new green plants in spring, insects (ants and bees) through summer or when warm weather begins, and berries through summer and fall to fatten up for winter.

They will consume small and large animals but, only opportunistically. I have seen bears eat frogs, chipmunks, grouse, marten, and black-tailed deer. I have never seen a bear kill a deer, only feed on roadkill or a deer/elk carcass from a coyote/wolf kill. Whistler bears do not have access to salmon so they need to consume many berries.

Bear eating grass on Whistler summer ski slopes
Ski runs melt into all-you-can-eat bear buffets. PHOTO MICHAEL ALLEN

An average black bear will consume 30,000 to 50,000 berries in 17 hours depending on the availability of berries. Some larger bears during a bumper berry crop have consumed upwards 80,000 berries in a day. But that’s not constant.

With Almost 30 Years of Studying Bears Can You Think of a Favourite Moment?

My favorite moments are in the spring when I locate a bear that I’ve been following for many years and to know that they’ve survived another year. It’s always a highlight the first time I observe Slumber for the first time each year. He is the oldest known (to me) male black bear in Whistler at 23 years old.

Bear on the lush summer ski slopes of Whistler B.C.
Slumber has seen more summers than most people in town. PHOTO TOURISM WHISTLER | MIKE CRANE

What to Do if You Encounter a Bear?

If you are visiting in the spring or early summer, it’s likely that you will get to see a bear for yourself. Most sightings happen on far way ski slopes from gondolas, or on distant fairways during a round at the Fairmont Chateau Golf Club.

Our bears range freely so you may also encounter them along a forest trail or even the paved valley trail. For both your safety, and the comfort and happiness of the bears we recommend the follow if you encounter a bear:

  • Stay calm – don’t scream or run
  • If the bear sees you (you can see its face), talk in a calm, regular voice
  • If all you see is its rump or side, retreat slowly and quietly the way you came especially, if you are close < 10m
  • Back away from the bear the way you came
  • Never approach or try to sneak around a bear

If seeing a bear is high on your to-do list while in town we recommend booking a Bear Viewing Tour. Not only is it the safest and more reliable way to see a bear, your guide will also be a wealth of knowledge about our local bears.

Three young bears looking though fall foliage in Whistler.
You never know where a bear (or 3) may pop up. PHOTO TOURISM WHISTLER | MIKE CRANE

For those feeling a little apprehensive about venturing into the forests alone, our Whistler Experience Guide Tours offer daily guided excursions complementary for Fairmont Chateau Whistler guests.

How Can We Help to Protect the Bears of Whistler?

We all have a part to play in keeping Whistler’s bears happy and healthy. Here are few things you can do:

LEARN AND APPRECIATE HOW OUR LIVES IMPACT THEIRS

The Get Bear Smart Society of Whistler is a fantastic resource to learn more about wildlife stewardship in Whistler, and what we can do to live in harmony with our local bears.

KEEP YOUR HOME & YARD FREE OF BEAR ATTRACTANTS

Whistler is a Bear Smart community. That means that we are committed to reducing conflict between bears and people.

A big way to help is to eliminate any bear attractants. Keep your yard free of tasty treats that can attract a bear like bird feeders or berries. Garbage should also always be stored securely. Our public garbage cans are bear-proof and take a bit of getting used to. If you’re having trouble getting one open just ask a local and they’ll be happy to help.

DO NOT KNOWINGLY AGGRAVATE A BEAR WHILE BIKING OR WALKING A DOG

If you see a bear while out remember to give it plenty of space and keep your pets on a leash for both their safety and to not harass the bear. It can be tempting to get close to get a photo, but please don’t approach bears. It’s not worth risking your safety for a photo and there are plenty of beautiful pictures of local bears to enjoy online.

Whistler’s bears will be awake and exploring until late fall so you have plenty of time to come and see them for yourself. Plan a trip to Whistler now for late summer or fall to secure your trip at the best rates. For more information and to start planning here.

If you’re looking for more inspiration, check out Slopeside Stories to learn more about Whistler’s most exciting activities, adventure, dining and more!

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