In a few short days, I’ll be heading up to the Khutzeymateen Inlet for some prime bear viewing. Am I excited? You could say that... Why am I excited? Bear with me…
The Khutzeymateen Valley is a large conservation area that is infamous for the large number of grizzly bears - not to mention black bears - that make this sanctuary their home. My hope is that we’ll get to see a few of these residents as they go about their spring routine… that is, eating delicious sedges.
Actually, when they’re not sleeping, eating is pretty much a bear’s main focus. Along with the sedges, a coastal bear’s annual menu includes fresh greens – and root vegetables for grizzly bears, who are known for their digging abilities – berries, and finally salmon in the fall, with some intertidal invertebrates as appetizers. (I would order this 5 course meal any day, hold the sedges).
Because bears are focused on food, we are able to visit estuaries during the summer and fall with this intention of viewing grizzly and black bears. Food is so important that these bears are willing to tolerate humans watching, as long as they are able to continue eating. Researchers like Dr. Barrie Gilbert – a naturalist with Bluewater Adventures – theorize that in some places bear viewing has actually helped increase the population of bears, since the older males are less likely to frequent areas that humans visit, therefore making it safer for mothers with cubs to feed.
Bear viewing isn’t just about getting great photographs – for guides it’s about finding that balance between being close enough to enjoy these magnificent animals, while still giving bears the space they need to feel comfortable in their activities. How much space? Well, as Grant MacHutchon – a commercial bear viewing facilitator and also a naturalist with Bluewater – says, “It depends…”
Is the bear giving signs that it he or she is stressed? Are there other bears in the area? Is the food source limited? Are you watching a mother bear with new cubs? These variables to consider while bear viewing was just one of many discussion topics that arose at the 2013 bear viewing guide training. This year it took place in Knight Inlet and when we weren’t discussing bears, we were out in the estuary watching them. Pretty rough, I know.
Growing up in BC, I’ve had many interactions with bears, and no two of them were the same. My experiences echoed the main theme of this course: each interaction that we have with bears is unique. Just like a person’s mood which changes daily (if not hourly), with many factors contributing to their overall state of mind, a bear’s tolerance of people watching them also changes. You might have been able to get fairly close to a mother bear and her cubs one day, but find the next morning that she is giving signs of stress at a much greater distance. And we may never know the backstory of why this is the case. Perhaps a new male moved into the area and threatened her cubs. Perhaps a wolf pack drove her from her feeding area. Regardless of the reason, a big part of bear viewing is understanding bear behaviour and reacting accordingly to their tolerance level at that specific moment. As well, although bears are highly adaptable creatures, we often watch from consistent areas - such as bear stands - to allow bears to predict where we will be, and give them the choice to feed in proximity if they feel comfortable.
Ultimately we want to ensure bears can go about their normal activity while still offering the best bear viewing experience for our guests. Keeping these guidelines - and other guidelines suggested by the Commercial Bear Viewing Association - in mind greatly increases our chances of incredible encounters with bears.
I’m excited that my – and Bluewater’s – season of bear viewing will begin in the Khutzeymateen, and I’m also excited that it will continue through to Alaska, Knight Inlet, and then into Great Bear Rainforest. The areas we visit are known for high bear concentrations and I look forward to comparing these experiences to each other and to previous years with a new lens of understanding bear tolerance.
Now… speaking of berries… I should probably go taste-test that salmonberry patch again…