Bear Update: Restless cubs and ripening berries
By Michael Allen
Black Bear Researcher
The chocolate brown phase mother black bear stood poised with her head angled upward and her chest resting against the rough bark of the Western hemlock. The last rays of the setting sun danced through her shoulder hairs offering a reddish-orange fiery image. She remained against the tree, transfixed on the branches above. Soft gulping sounds rumbled from inside her. She seemed to be commanding a response from the two small bundles of fur in the foliage above. Frustrated, she lowered her head and glanced from side to side as if to confirm her next actions with her surroundings.
Some 30 meters above, two six-month-old black bear cubs, one black and one brown, sat nervously watching their mother; so large, so intimidating. Despite their distance above the ground the cubs remained steadfast on the nest of hemlock branches, obeying their mother's commands. The mother's talk — gulping sounds from below — grew in intensity, but the cubs did not move.
Suddenly, each cub trembled as the branches shook beneath their small paws from the weight of the mother bear as she heaved herself upward onto the 60 cm diameter tree trunk. Gulping sounds continued with loud huffs as the mother lunged and pulled herself upward onto the first layer of branches. Bits of bark flew off as her sharp, curved claws caught and ripped into the trunk of the tree. Her large shoulder muscles contracted with each pull and push upwards. The cubs grew restless as they watched their mother ascend the tree to the branches just below their claws. The mother managed to steady her 250 pound frame against the trunk long enough to nuzzle and comfort her cubs. The cubs immediately began to move to the mother and position themselves hind feet first for the climb down. With mom in the lead, all three bears began to descend the tree. The mother continued huffing and gulping to reassure her cubs that she wanted them down. The cubs reached the base of the tree a few seconds later than the mother and quickly gathered around her for protection.
The bear cubs’ world is a vast space filled with uncertainty beyond the realm of mother's protection and the security of a large tree. The cubs find momentary peace as they climb onto their mother’s belly and settle in for a bout of noisy nursing. After 2-4 minutes of suckling mother's rich milk their world once again appears safe and the cubs grow restless for play.
The start of July represents the most important season to the Whistler bear: summer berry feeding. Over 15 species of abundant berries will ripen during the next two months for bears to find and consume. Up until the ripening of berries, bears have not gained any significant amount of weight unless they have consumed great quantities of edible human garbage or animal matter. The mating season is slowly winding down as are the events leading to family separations. The priorities of the black bear now through late fall will be to feed and gain as much weight as possible in preparation for the winter sleep.
The quantity of berries also plays an important role in determining how many conflicts with bears we can expect this summer and fall. A good berry crop is anticipated this year, as revealed by fruit swell surveys at berry plots, along with relatively warm, sunny weather. However, the high elevation crop is usually the most susceptible to crop failures, due to colder temperatures killing flowers during July. Expect bear activity to increase through the valley from Function Junction to Lost Lake as bears seek out the first ripe salmon berries and huckleberries.
Anyone with questions regarding black bears or information of a bear family observation (mother with cubs or yearlings) in the Whistler area can contact me at 938-3816. A big thanks to those that have already helped with information on bear family sightings.
Black bear research and education in Whistler is sponsored in part by Whistler-Blackcomb and the BBC/River Road Films Ltd. Information collected during this study is used to update bear education programs in area schools as well as the comprehensive ski area bear interpretation programs on Whistler-Blackcomb. The Whistler Ecosystem Black Bear Project is conducted independent of those efforts of the Resort Municipality of Whistler and the Whistler Black Bear Task Team. As a Bear Researcher and Naturalist, I am involved only in the collection of unbiased ecological data and the application of this data to bear research/education programs.