By Michael Allen
Black Bear Researcher
I did not see the coyote, flat on his belly, watching the four-month-old bear cub. The mother bear's back was toward the coyote and the vulnerable cub, while the other cub was playing in front of the mother. I was watching from 20 metres at the edge of a Blackcomb ski run. The cub was biting at grasses and stems and jumping around when it looked up and was staring about 2 metres into the face of a predator. The cub's hair shot up on end and it let out a soft whimper and turned slowly to bound back to its mother.
The good thing about mother bears is that they can smell and hear every move and noise that their cubs make. The second cub was already aware of the danger and heading for the trees. The coyote lunged forward and all that was heard was the bawling sound of the cub as it tried to make it to the trees.
The coyote was determined in running down the cub, but, instead ran full tilt into about 300 pounds of mother bear — an unhappy mother bear. The mother hit the coyote with her fore paw twice and still, with snapping jaws, the coyote continued its attack. The mother bear pinned the coyote to the ground with both fore paws and bit into its side, then retreated. The coyote limped backwards, but soon began running away. The mother turned and walked, stiff-legged, to the base of the cubs' escape tree and paced for 17 minutes blowing and popping her jaws.
This observation reveals the mother's fierce reaction to her cubs being threatened by a predator. Mother bears react differently to humans than they do other animals. Depending on the mother bear's experience with litters and with humans, it is difficult to predict how she will react to you when you bump into her on a trail. The best precaution you can take, as with any bears, is to be alert, look for bear signs, (droppings, torn-apart logs, tracks) and make human noises in an area where visibility is poor or the forest and shrubs are thick and high, especially if there are bear signs in that area. Human sounds, like talking and singing, are the best deterrent to making a non-visible bear aware of your presence. Bear whistles, horns, and bells don't really identify you as a human and sometimes you attract the curiosity of bears.
If you do run into a bear with cubs or with 1 year old cubs (yearlings) talk to her calmly and loud enough for her to hear you and begin backing away slowly. The most important action by you is to show her you're leaving and giving her space. She might bluff a charge by stomping on the ground with stiff fore legs and popping her jaw, but this is usually only to scare you — and it will. Continue to back away while talking and she will settle down.
Mothers with cubs will be stressed in late June, as will most other bears, because the berries first to ripen in the valley around mid-June are still green, and will remain that way into July depending on the amount of sunshine the valley receives. This is when bears are more likely to seek out and use their knowledge of supplemental food resources — like garbage.
The advantages of having the vast areas of ski runs nearby is that grasses and clovers are continually being released at new snowmelt sites on both Blackcomb and Whistler. This gives bears more grazing time into summer. Green vegetation does not make them gain weight but it keeps them busy feeding and maintaining energy levels.
Bears have a tendency to consume unripened berries just days before they ripen fully so you can expect bears to also be hanging around the valley huckleberry patches in late June and early July.
With the landfill closing and the berry crop late, now more than ever garbage should be dumped frequently at the compactors. If you see a bear in the valley chances are they are passing through looking for food. We should learn to exercise a higher tolerance for bears being close because they will occupy the valley regardless of the garbage situation. It is a successful garbage management program in Whistler which will decrease the confrontations between bears and people over garbage.
The Bear Project is sponsored and funded by Blackcomb Mountain. Phone for more info 905-0093.
Michael Allen can be heard on Mountain FM’s Mountain Monitor program the fourth Tuesday of each month. Listen June 25 at noon.
photo: Bear family on Blackcomb. Mothers always keep their cubs near trees to escape danger.