Bear Update: Return of Susie
Black Bear Researcher
The fact that I was adrift in a fly fishing belly-boat did not deter my efforts in locating a particular bear family, one which I had, in the previous weeks, spent countless hours searching for. When all else fails — go fishing — especially if the mother bear you are looking for has been spotted near your favourite lake.
Propelled by the quiet kick of my fins I drifted slowly along the lake shore. Stands of cottonwood with dense shrubby understories choked the edges of the lake giving it a jungle-like appearance. I had made a few casts and settled back to drift when I heard the soft padded movement of a large animal in the dry forest. I reeled in my line and listened. Following the steady gate of a single bear was the rustling and faster gate of smaller animals as if they were trying to keep up with the larger bear's pace.
I continued to drift in the same direction as the bears’ movement. Nearing an opening in the riparian forest, I manoeuvred into position with hopes of catching a glimpse of the shy omnivore. A black mass appeared ghost-like from within the bright green foliage of a cottonwood. The familiar face of Susie, a resident mother of the Whistler Interpretive Forest, peered out at me. I glanced in anticipation, hoping that what I had heard behind Susie might have been cubs. The 10 or 15 metres between us was filled by three 4-month old black cubs. The mother took a few steps up slope onto a deadfall to assess my presence in the water while the cubs scrambled up onto the log and huddled between her hind legs.
How many and how often a mother black bear produces cubs is revealed as her reproductive fitness, which reflects her ability to utilize high quality foods within her habitat. Having had three cubs in her first litter as a mother in 1996 and three again in 1998 is an indication of Susie's excellent health. In Whistler adult females usually have two cubs every two years following sexual maturity at age four.
Habitat quality is excellent in Whistler due to past logging and wildfire which has removed mature forest canopies, forcing plant communities into early stages of succession where berry-producing shrubs dominate these disturbed areas. The Whistler Interpretive Forest yields some of the densest thickets of huckleberries throughout Whistler and from June through November Susie's time is spent feeding on these sugar-rich berries. Susie also fed, to supplement her berry diet, on edible human garbage at the Whistler dump.
In 1996 she fed regularly at the dump from May through June while reverting back to natural foods more frequently during summer and fall. She remained active until Dec. 20, 1996, most likely to assure her peak weight gain for a successful winter sleep. In 1997 she returned to the landfill with her three yearlings in mid-April, where she fed daily until June. She left her three yearlings in late June and subsequently mated in early July.
Susie does not behave as a heavily garbage-dependant bear because, as with most bears in Whistler, she simply is utilizing the availability of a high caloric food source. It is more beneficial for a bear to feed at different food sources amongst diverse habitats so to enhance their mental map of food locations. During seasons of food shortages — restricted access to garbage, failed berry crops, or low salmon runs — bears which have learned the locations of different food sources will succeed in maintaining weight gain for successful winter sleeps or pregnancies.
Being a mom for the first time in 1996 will cause Susie to undertake some changes as she raises her second litter of three cubs. Susie's territory comprises a major portion of the Whistler Interpretive Forest, with the northern tip of overlapping the Whistler dump. Mother bears often visit dumps which are at the outermost reaches of their territories to reduce the frequencies of confrontations with other bears visiting the dump, especially adult males. If a dump was located in the central portion of a mother's territory adult male confrontations would likely increase because many bears would be passing through a larger portion of the territory.
The fact that so far two of Susie's three yearlings have visited the landfill this year will cause changes in how Susie uses her territory. Mothers usually allow their daughters to remain within their natal ranges while sons are forced to disperse over a period of 1-3 years. Dispersal depends on bear density and food availability in the mother's territory. Susie's yearling male remains visiting the landfill because there is a surplus of food and competition is low. As garbage becomes unavailable her 2-year old male will likely begin to move as far as 100 km away to establish his own niche. Susie's locations for May 1998 already are different than the previous two years. She is likely to shift her territory away from the landfill to allow her daughters to visit the landfill and utilize the surrounding rich habitats of the Interpretive Forest.
Black bear activity is reaching seasonally high levels in Whistler as we approach the peak grazing period in June. Mating begins now and runs through late July. Mothers with cubs-of-the-year will be more visible during late May. A minimum of 35 different bears have been identified in the Blackcomb, Whistler Mountain, and Landfill sub-populations. Bear activity has been lower at the landfill than in the previous five years of study mainly due to advanced green-up, shifting in bear activity areas, and vacancies created in the sub-population from previous removal of garbage-dependant animals.
Remember to store all odorous organic garbage inside until proper disposal at a compactor site. Bears have a huge capacity for learning and memory. If you leave food or any attractant outside you have entered your residence as well as your neighbours’ into the Whistler bear food database for future visits.
Anyone with questions regarding black blacks can contact me at 938-3816. Also, anyone observing a family group of bears, a mother with cubs or yearlings, throughout the Whistler area can contact me or Jeff Turner at 938-3903 with the date and location. A big thanks to those who have already helped with information on bear sightings.
Black bear research and education in Whistler is sponsored in part by Whistler/Blackcomb and the Jennifer Jones Whistler Bear Foundation.