Bear Update: Fall garbage feeding increasing
By Michael Allen,
Black Bear Researcher
On a cool, dark fall morning in front of the IGA at 5:11 a.m. a large adult male black bear reaches up and pulls a black plastic bag of garbage from the overflowing sidewalk container. The bright lights of the grocery and adjacent storefronts do not appear to deter the hungry animal. With the bag on the ground between his two massive forepaws he gently slits open the plastic with three foreclaws. He noses through the refuse, quickly finding solid food — a half-full container of yoghurt and three bagels.
Leaving the open bag on the sidewalk he does not return to the same container but moves along the storefront, pausing briefly to sniff a new bear proof container only to proceed to the next non-bear proof source of garbage and pull the entire container over, spilling its full contents on the sidewalk. Pizza crusts and milk lie at the bear's forepaws. Taking only seconds to devour this high caloric human food he moves on to the next non-bear proof container, again passing a new bear proof container.
At 5:19 he climbs the steps in front of Auntie Ems and moves along the sidewalk rounding the corner at Grabbajabba. He hesitates here and retreats, sniffing the pavement underneath the benches.
At 5:28 he continues along Main Street where he inspects and feeds at six non-bear proof garbage containers. On our way we pass three new bear proof containers which appear useless having been placed amongst accessible non-bear proof containers.
The silhouette of the early riser disappears within the shadows of shrubs behind the BrewHouse. At 5:43 the adult bear walks through the day-skier parking lot and into the forests surrounding Fitzsimmons Creek Park. At 5:46 he walks on to Fitzsimmons Creek bridge where he pauses to lick up the remains of a melted popsicle. I am so close to him I can here the snap of the popsicle stick in his mouth. He spits out the splintered wood and walks across the bridge to enter the Gables complex.
At 5:50 he hesitates at the edge of a driveway hearing a dog bark somewhere off in the distance. He moves along the road at 5:51 directly to the wooden garbage storage shed, crawls under the door and inspects the bin; its empty. He methodically crawls back out and walks across the grass and Blackcomb Way to wooden garbage building of the Snowridge complex. The doors of the building were wide open — probably a smart thing to do since bears will undoubtedly damage the doors trying to get into the bin.
At 6:09 the large adult male rears to pull one plastic bag from the overflowing old garbage bin. At 6:14 the security of the night begins to lift and the bear grabs another full bag of garbage to go and climbs a hill between two condos, only to disappear into the forest at the base of Blackcomb.
This nightly activity represents the routine black bears have adopted, become habituated to, and evolved with during the last 30 years in Whistler. As evening approaches bears have access to a world of different edible garbage sources. We as residents or visitors to Whistler indirectly feed these wild neighbours, whether it’s simple ignorance, which stems from a lack of awareness of the problem, carelessness or laziness stemming from inadequate refuse management.
I am not involved with the municipal Bear Task Force but in my 12 years of studying black bears living near people, I would not distribute bear proof garbage containers amongst non-bear proof containers. Instead, I would choose small areas of Whistler, such as Marketplace, to outfit completely with bear proof containers, so bears learn that a specific area is no longer a sources of garbage.
Currently, with the new and old garbage containers mixed together, bears continue to access garbage. The solution to bear proofing Whistler is changing the feeding behaviours of bears. To do this human behaviours must be changed, in order to change garbage management techniques. So far this has not even begun in Whistler. The process of bear proofing a community does not happen in one year or in Whistler's case several years. In order to see effective results seasonally, each year, an approach oriented by local bear behaviour must be adopted.
Bears feed on edible human garbage in Whistler primarily as a supplement to natural food shortages. The feeding behaviour of bears is opportunistic, and bears have great capabilities for learning and remembering. During spring through early summer feeding is affected by social events in the bear population: mating, family break-up and dispersal. From August through October feeding is the primary focus for bears and the success of their winter sleep. Bears must gain as much weight as possible before entering dens for the winter. Pregnancies will abort if adult females do not reach a peak weight to sustain themselves and their offspring through winter.
In any case, bears will continue to seek edible human garbage as it is available because it provides a quick fix for the required winter fat storage and takes relatively little energy compared to foraging through vast berry shrub fields.
From September through October expect very high bear activity in the valley due to a complete decline of the berry crop. Too much sun and too little rain has withered large tracts of open berry shrub fields. Much of the ski trail green-up has been retarded because of the lack of rain, resulting in little green vegetation for bears to graze.
Although garbage feeding activity will be high it may not seem so because of the lower numbers of bears occupying Whistler this year. Removal (destruction and relocation), highway fatalities and social displacement with individual bears catches up on the local bear population.
Anyone with questions about black bears or information regarding a bear family (mother with cubs or yearlings) in the Whistler area can contact me at 938-3816. A big thanks to those that have helped with information on bear family sightings.
Black bear research and education in Whistler is sponsored by Whistler-Blackcomb and the BBC/River Road Films Ltd. The purpose of the Bear Update columns is to increase awareness of local black bear activity for residents and visitors to Whistler, with the goal of educating people on how to live close to bears.