Bear Update: Winter Travels
By Michael Allen
Black Bear Researcher
The numbers in the display of the satellite receiver increased by twos rapidly then slowed, jumping back and forth between increments. I squinted at the display trying to determine if the UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) readout had slowed to a fix. I repeatedly wiped the splatters of large wet snowflakes from the receiver's display. With the receiver in my left hand and the external antennae in my right, I steadily attempted to secure two or more satellites for a reliable position. It was snowing heavily. I glanced hurriedly at the large dark mass curled up in the tree well of a Douglas fir, less than 5 metres away. I did not want to wake the 500-600 pound adult male black bear for obvious reasons, but more so, I did not want to disturb and force him to look for another bed in such harsh weather.
This was Jan. 12, 1998, a time for dreaming of huckleberries, not trudging through deep, wet snowfalls. Four days ago this adult male left his bed between the landfill and the Cheakamus River around 11:30 p.m. It was clear and -17 Celsius as he finally moved away from the landfill and into the Whistler Interpretive Forest.
A large clump of snow collapsed through the canopy and landed on the bear’s rump. I held my breath — no movement. I thought, "that must happen all the time so bears are probably used to it."
Just as the UTM numbers slowed to a near fix a larger clump of snow crashed right into my head and I hit the receiver. The weight of the snow knocked the antenna out of position. With a near saturated satellite receiver I began wiping off the snow and attempting another signal retrieval. I didn’t want to look and see if the bear had woken. I concentrated on the task and managed to secure three satellites recording our position in the dense forest.
As I left I glanced around at the bear; he had shifted position but did not appear awake or alert. Angry with myself for taking so long and increasing the chance of disturbing him I remembered what Dr. Lynn Rogers, a 30-year veteran of black bear research in Minnesota had said to me: "Hundreds of black bears are shot over garbage conflicts every year in British Columbia and we learn very little from the destruction of this resource — if I (meaning me) have to disturb a bear for a brief period to collect data where it could be useful in management or education and thus increasing the awareness of bear biology then disturbance is justified."
On Feb. 17 1998 — 36 days, 15 bed sites, and approximately 15 kilometres of travel later — the large adult male ended his winter travels at a stand of three old growth western red cedars in the upper timbered shrub fields of the Whistler Interpretive Forest. Bears generally enter dens from mid-October to mid-December and emerge from early March to late April depending on bear class, weight, food availability, and weather. Factors contributing to this adult male’s winter travel were a poor high elevation berry crop, accessible landfill garbage, and mild winter weather.
It is now March, 23 1998 — 34 days since the bear arrived at his three-cedar den and 73 days since his departure from the landfill. He continues to sleep both inside and under the massive trees. Now when I visit to monitor his activity he raises his head to acknowledge my presence, only to retreat into his sleepy realm, which he surely deserves.
The first bear activity identified in Whistler was on March 9, 1998 when two bears arrived at skunk cabbage swamps and traditional bedding areas between the landfill and the Cheakamus River. Bear activity has also been observed around garbage bins throughout Whistler, typically, Nordic and Whistler Creekside. Some bears have adapted to entering dens later and emerging earlier due to an abundance of non-contained edible human garbage in Whistler. However, bears must become habituated to human activity in order to visit most garbage bins. Garbage conditioning in bears is not constant — if you want to contribute to the solution and reduce garbage conditioning in bears, do not wait for bear-proof bins. You must keep existing bins and associated areas clean to prevent the start of the garbage-conditioning process.
If you own or lease garbage bins try to prevent overflow. Overflowing bins are the leading cause of bear access to garbage and thus contribute to the destruction of bears. Try to have bins emptied when they are three-quarters full. Even if proper bear-proof bins are distributed through Whistler, bears will continually visit, expecting to find and feed on garbage. Public awareness, involvement, and responsibility is the ultimate solution in reducing garbage-bear conflicts in Whistler.
Questions regarding black bear ecology can be directed to me at (604) 892-3596.