An unauthorized bear tour company operating out of Whistler is causing great concern for the Lil’wat Nation, government officials, bear experts and local farmers. Conservation experts who have spent years trying to recover the grizzly bear population feel their efforts could all have been in vain, now that their bears have become part of a whistle-stop tour.
Yogi’s Bear Tours is a one-man operation based in Whistler Village. Excited tourists wrote stellar reviews of the company, with nearly every guest getting to see a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs while on “safari.” Guests rode in style in a luxury vehicle with complimentary snacks and drinks provided. Adults can grab a ticket for the four-hour tour for $199. Kids hop on at the cheaper price of $169. Whistler/Pemberton Valley sightseeing is also included in the package. There was often time to catch a quick breakfast at North Arm Farm before going further up the road to catch snaps of one of nature’s greatest predators.
But experts are worried the mother grizzly bear involved has now become too used to humans and will start to push boundaries.
On Aug. 29, the Lil’wat Nation took to Instagram to warn people that an unauthorized bear company was operating on an undisclosed location within Lil’wat territory. The Nation pointed out the BC Wildlife Act forbids behaviour that would “worry, exhaust, fatigue, annoy, plague, pester, tease or torment” an animal, adding the Lil’wat received reports the tour was not being operated in a way that was “minimizing disturbance to bears nor maximizing public safety.”
According to the provincial government, it is an offence to herd or harass wildlife with the use of a motor vehicle, aircraft, boat or other mechanical device, and there are strict laws that prohibit attracting or feeding bears.
“The Province is monitoring these bear viewing activities and is working to ensure that both bears and people remain safe. At this time no illegal activity has been observed by ministry staff,” a government official said.
Pique made multiple attempts over phone and email to contact Yogi’s Bear Tours, but did not receive a response before press time.
Lil’wat Chief Dean Nelson told Pique the five-star rated company had not been through the Lil’wat Nation Referrals System. “The Lil’wat Nation Lands and Resources Department received notification of a tour company operating in a manner that was detrimental to a female grizzly bear and cubs,” Nelson said in a statement.
“Nation representatives reached out to the operator who confirmed that they did not have a license to operate. The company has been provided a copy of the Land Use Referral Policy, but has been told that it is unlikely that an application would be supported.”
Everyone running a commercial venture within the Lil’wat Nation’s territory is required to use its referral process for consent to operate, the statement said.
The Ministry of Forests remains in contact with the Lil’wat Nation over the matter, the provincial official said, adding the province is currently conducting online public engagement on a provincial Commercial Bear Viewing Strategy that considers regulation of the bear-viewing industry.
The deadline for public engagement is Oct. 6: engage.gov.bc.ca/govtogetherbc/engagement/commercial-bear-viewing-strategy.
‘It could be disastrous’
Dr. Lana Ciarniello is one of the leading bear experts in her field, having researched black bears and grizzlies since 1993. She was recently working for the Lil’wat Nation to recover its grizzly bear population. She explained that the area where Yogi’s Bear Tours were taking place is right between two threatened populations.
“We worked with the people in that area,” said Ciarniello. “We installed a number of electric fences around big commercial properties. We saved some habitat and did some movement corridors. Essentially, over the years, it started to work. We started to get grizzly bears back into this area. We got a female and she had some babies. She has been in the area for a couple of years.”
To the scientist’s delight, the female grizzly bear came back this year with two new babies. Sadly, word got out, causing a great threat to the creatures’ well-being.
Dr. Ciarniello said locals in the area are extremely proud of “their” bears, and took a vested interest in helping recover the bear population.
“The people are just really good at living with the bears around them,” she said. “More and more viewings started to occur there. A commercial operator was there. People were really worried about the bear family. People were getting out of vehicles and getting close to the bears.
“It’s not good for the people who are left with those bears.”
The viewings were also taking place until at least a week ago on private land.
“There are privacy concerns as well,” said Ciarniello. “I went there and looked at the situation myself. The Lil’wat Nation were instrumental in stopping this activity. The operation is being shut down. It’s the Nation that we can thank for that.”
Experts and locals alike are now preparing themselves for the consequences of the bears being too habituated with humans.
“It’s in a residential area and when food becomes limited, bears start to push those boundaries,” said Ciarniello. “We have to make sure that everyone is as bear smart as possible so none of these get any taste of human foods. Right now, they are just using their natural resources. We have to make sure it stays that way. When she goes to push these boundaries, we have to be ready for it.”
Ciarniello has already gone around to landowners to put a plan in place. When the bear steps into a no-go zone, they are advised to go out with pots, pans and bear bangers, anything to make the bear realize she cannot be there.
Ciarniello explained that while unauthorized activities may cost organizations a lot of time and money, she is more worried that an innocent grizzly will have to pay the ultimate price.
“It could be disastrous. As soon as she gets into any human food, that’s where our conservation matrix kicks into place. It’s within their right to euthanize her,” she said. “It’s our problem, not the bear’s problem. They can’t go to a grocery store.”
The conservationist is also worried locals will quickly grow sick of “their” bear is she starts to cause havoc, hindering all of their efforts over the years.
‘You don’t go searching for the grizzly bears to view them’
At multiple times, tourists were allegedly too close to one of the bears.
“The person that was running the company didn’t have any bear experience. They didn’t have any bear knowledge,” Ciarnello said. “We logged incidents of them getting too close to the mom bear. She was being really tolerant, but that was the only reason they were getting away with it.”
Jason Coleman, spokesperson and behavioural scientist with Whistler Photo Safaris, another tour company operating out of Whistler Village, said conservation should be at the heart of every bear tour company.
“We’ve been dedicated to educating on conservation efforts since the very first day two grizzly bears showed up in the valley,” Coleman said. “I was the first one to see those two grizzlies. I took a photo of them walking side by side when they were both cubs. I’ve managed to keep the two of them out of social media up until last year. When they came into Rainbow Park, I couldn’t protect them any longer.”
Coleman told Pique tour companies treat grizzly bears entirely differently to black bears. “You don’t go searching for the grizzly bears to view them,” he said. “We offer them twice as much space as we give a black bear. We try not to be noticed by a grizzly bear. We never advertise grizzly bears and we never try to include them as part of our tour. It’s never something we actively pursue.”
Keeping the location of a grizzly secret is paramount to everything tour guides do.
“If we see one, we don’t even call it a grizzly bear when we are communicating with other guides. We have a code name for it. We want to keep people clear of the location,” Coleman said.
Advice on bear viewing best practices and on choosing an authorized tour company is available here.