Best Practices for Bear Viewing

1. Putting Best Practices In Context

This document reflects the experience of Commercial Bear Viewing Association of British Columbia (CBVA) member companies who, collectively, represent thousands of hours and many years of incident free, enjoyable and sustainable bear viewing in various regions of British Columbia. Our best practices document has also had key input from respected wildlife biologists. The practices found within this document are meant to be used in concert with any tenure or protocol agreements that have been signed by our members with government or First Nations as well as with any applicable provincial or federal laws. This document should be accompanied by the CBVA Code of Ethics.

Our best practices have evolved in an adaptive context. What does that mean? Basically it starts with the premise that we as operators desire to have as minimal an impact on bears as we can. Twenty years ago when some of our members pioneered this industry in B.C. there were no guidelines and very little research on how to safely view bears in the wild. These companies would try a technique or strategy designed for low impact viewing and if they saw a negative outcome (i.e., a stressed bear) they would modify their viewing behaviour and start again. Over many years of this adaptive viewing, our members have evolved techniques and strategies that we believe are highly effective. These techniques allow our members to offer guests a quality viewing experience while minimizing impact on the environment and the bears.

We as an association are committed to continuing to evolve our viewing techniques and strategies as new research and our experience dictates. We help to fund important, professional research on human-bear interactions. Some of this research has had surprising results. For example, research on viewing in Knight Inlet has led to data that suggests viewing actually may help the long-term viability of local populations. Data of Utah State University researcher Owen Nevin indicated that females with cubs may feel less stressed during feeding while in the presence of humans. This is thought to be because large male bears are less likely to intrude on female/cub feeding sessions when humans are present. This has led to important changes to bear viewing in Knight Inlet which allows viewers to watch females with cubs while at the same time allowing enough space and time for large male bears to get the nourishment they require. This is but one example of important on-going research that is key to the long-term viability of our bear viewing industry.

In BC we are fortunate to have Grizzly bears, Black bears and Kermode (or Spirit) bears. These bears are wild, elusive and highly intelligent. They are a symbol of our wilderness and are a touchstone for that mystical, timeless connection we have with the Earth. Our members and our guests witness a side to these animals that most of the public never sees. Our guests are able to see bears going about the day-to-day work of living - mating, feeding, hunting, resting, playing, fighting and learning. This makes us appreciate bears for what they are and is what makes wildlife viewing such a remarkable and moving experience.

2. Guide Training and Certification

2.1 Guide Training

CBVA member companies are expected to meet or exceed industry standards in staff training.  Member companies should provide training to guides that address environmental awareness, human safety, appropriate response to accidents or emergencies, and safe, educational, and non-disruptive interactions with bears.  The following are considered core skills of guides:

  1. Sensible approach to safety and good judgement.
  2. Local area knowledge.
  3. Technical skills such as boat handling, radio commercial operator competency, vehicle handling skills on rough terrain, group management on land.
  4. First aid training.
  5. Ability to carry out an emergency plan using available resources.
  6. Effective nature interpretation, communication and human management skills.
  7. Knowledge of bear biology and area ecology; conservation and management issues.
  8. Recognition of signs and signals of bear stress that can lead to the bear moving away, approaching aggressively, or even attacking.
  9. Prevention and safe response to bear encounters, approaches, or attacks.
  10. Period of apprenticeship with an experienced bear viewing guide.

2.2 Guide Certification

The CBVA requests that their member companies endeavour to hire only guides possessing certification by the CBVA.  There are two levels of CBVA guide certification: "Assistant Guide" and "Full Guide".  Potential guides must first complete the assistant guide level endorsement before they will be considered for certification as a full guide.

2.2.1 Assistant Guides

The assistant guide endorsement is granted upon the successful completion of a CBVA assistant guide training course. The foundation of the 2-3 day assistant guide training course is a curriculum and CBVA Bear Viewing Guide Training Resource Manual developed by Grant MacHutchon as well as the CBVA Best Practices Guidelines.

The CBVA typically holds an assistant guide certification course each year dependent on demand. Individual companies and stakeholders can develop their own training programs that are appropriate to their type of operation using this 2-3 day program and curriculum as a foundation and by using a CBVA sanctioned instructor. Such training programs must be evaluated and approved by the CBVA Education and Certification Committee.

2.2.2 Full Guide

Full guide status can be attained by completing 60 days apprenticeship with a CBVA certified full guide. Candidates need to submit a cover letter, detailed logbook, and CBVA evaluation and recommendation form (signed by a certified full guide) to the CBVA Education and Certification Committee. Logbooks should outline relevant experience including locations, dates, bear species, viewing method (boat-based vs land-based; fixed site vs roving; fixed structure vs fixed location), and companies worked for.

In some circumstances, it may not be possible for an assistant guide to apprenticeship for 60 days under a CBVA certified full guide. For example, small companies primarily run by an owner/ operator may have a difficult time meeting the CBVA apprenticeship requirement or may not be able to provide an apprenticeship opportunity to any seasonal staff they employ. Consequently, a CBVA certified assistant guide may apply to the CBVA Education and Certification Committee for a waiver of the 60 day apprenticeship requirement during their full guide application. In order to be considered for full guide status under these circumstances, an applicant must demonstrate they have met a number of criteria, as follows:

Required Criteria

Desired Criteria

3. Guest Relations and Education

The success of any bear viewing operation is enhanced by well-informed and respectful guests. This, in turn, requires effective education information and knowledgeable and conscientious staff.

All operators will strive to add interpretative value to their trips. The education component in guided trips will be given strong weight. To this end, staff will not only possess high levels of knowledge of bear ecology but be skilled at imparting that knowledge to guests using the principles of nature interpretation.

Any information that guides can provide that increases people’s understanding of bears can increase guest’s appreciation and respect for bears. Guests are more likely to follow viewing guidelines if they understand the negative implications to bears and other wildlife of ignoring them.

In addition, member companies will strive to educate, where and when possible, other user groups, including private travellers and commercial bear viewing operators not part of the association, in the methods and philosophy of sustainable bear viewing. As such, the CBVA will strive to be ambassadors for the industry.

3.1 Guest Safety & Education Briefing

All bear viewing guests will be given a safety and education briefing that emphasizes the following points. Additional information will be provided to guests depending whether viewing is boat-based or land-based, as in sections 3.1.4 and 3.1.5.

3.1.1 General Safety

3.1.2 Safety around Bears

3.1.3 Education

3.1.4 Boat-based Viewing

3.1.5 Land-based Viewing

4. Risk Management

5. Access to Viewing Sites

6. Bear Viewing Guidelines

Although the individual circumstances of bear viewing are often dynamic, it is important for operators and their guides to follow some minimum standards during viewing that adhere to these principles. The following outlines conditions on viewing that will help achieve these guiding principles.

6.1 Avoiding Food-Conditioning in Bears

6.2 Minimizing Disturbance & Separation Distance

6.3 Predictability

6.4 Approaching a Bear

6.5 Boat-based Viewing

6.6 Land-based Viewing

7. Partnerships and Research

The Commercial Bear Viewing Association of BC member companies will strive for good relations with government and First Nations.

We will link where appropriate with other industry, environmental and academic organizations to promote sustainable wilderness viewing and protection for bears and their ecosystems.

8. Credit

This document reflects many years and many thousands of hours of watching bears and watching humans watch bears by many people. It is meant to be an organic document to evolve and change over time. This document reflects the collected wisdom of the following people, organizations and source documents:

* CBVA will continue to monitor the relationship between group sizes and bear impacts/displacement, and facilitate the discussion about maximum group sizes. The CBVA will also be seeking scientific research into this discussion.

To view the CBVA Code of Conduct in PDF form, click here.