Bear update: Looking out for berry-feeding black bears
By Michael Allen
Black Bear Researcher
The slope was basalt talus with old growth-size snags (standing dead trees) and patches of 1-3 metre high dense berry shrubs — excellent bear habitat.
This particular morning, I had set out to record my weekly location for one of nine bear families I am monitoring. Suse and her three eight-month-old cubs have been occupying a 1.5 square kilometre area in the Whistler Interpretive Forest. Black bear family territories are usually small because the size and vulnerability of cubs restricts the mother’s movements.
I waited, hunched over my tripod, for Suse to descend into the berry shrub-field from her bedding area on the ridge above. I knew the locations of many of her bedding sites where she and her cubs slept at night or escaped the heat during the day, but I did not want to disturb them.
I didn’t have long to wait before the shrubs above the rocky slope began to stir. A few minutes later two cubs came crashing through the shrubs and onto a pile of blown-down logs. Both cubs stopped abruptly, looked around, then climbed down and began foraging on low bush huckleberries. Seconds later Suse descended slowly and quietly through the shrubs with the third cub at her heels.
She reared, sniffing and sensing the area surrounding the slope. Satisfied no danger was present she sat down in the centre of a Devil’s club thicket and began feeding voraciously on the clusters of berries. The stiff armoured stems and spiny leaves of Devil’s club did not appear to hinder her use of the plant.
Berries are the most important bear food resource in the Whistler Valley ecosystem. Black bears rely on colour vision and somewhat on sense of smell to identify berry species. Thus, berry feeding activities correspond with daylight or diurnal periods, generally, between 4 a.m. and 10 p.m. Many berries are eaten in the unripened stage along with the ripened berries. Preference of certain berry species is dependant on the individual bear’s experience in locating berry shrubs within its home range.
Adjacent to the slope was a multi-use mountain bike/hiking trail which ran along the base of the shrub-field and traversed the edge up into the timbered ridge. I was perched on a fallen old growth snag just two metres above the switchback where the trail began to ascend into the timber. The family had been feeding amongst the high berry shrubs for almost two hours when I heard mountain bike tires rolling along the dry, gravel trail.
The cubs reacted first. They scrambled toward their mother. Suse reared trying to identify the sudden potential threat to her cubs. The bike was about 15 metres away from the bear family when the rider, a young girl, dismounted and began pushing her bike toward the switchback.
The rider was unaware of the bear family and my presence as she passed within one metre of my position. I was about 10 metres from Suse and her cubs. The girl was too close for me to utter a warning to her without startling her. She was moving away from the family as she pushed her bike past the switchback. Suse dropped and walked nervously, hesitating periodically with her cubs huddling around her, to the opposite edge of the slope.
I have observed this type of situation hundreds of times throughout the Whistler Valley. A large part of my research is learning how black bears react to people and our activities in bear habitat. I did not warn the girl of the bears’ presence because the mother bear was aware of the approaching rider and had time to react. Had the bears been oblivious to the approach of the bike I would have either scared the bears away before the rider was too close or warned that person in advance.
It was far too dangerous to startle the rider or the bears at such close distances. Suse has become habituated to my presence so most of the time it’s as if I am not even there.
I am always amazed at how many times hikers and bikers pass by bears with neither the bear nor the person aware of the other’s presence. Time should be taken to survey the area you are hiking or biking through for signs of bears.
Traditionally, between July and November bears can be found in low and high elevation shrub-dominated areas. Berry-producing shrubs grow in logged areas, along stream banks, lake shores, avalanche tracts and other open forested areas.
Sites where disturbance has occurred in the soil over time or the forest canopy has been fully or selectively removed will produce berry shrubs. Always keep on the lookout for ripe berries and red to purplish-black droppings.
Hiking or biking trails are the most common areas to run into bears. If you can see at least 30-40 metres ahead you should be visible to a bear. Trails that are winding through dense, high shrubs are potentially more dangerous. Always talk, sing or yell when approaching this section of trail and whenever you begin to encounter signs of bears. Trails along waterways are also potentially more dangerous for confrontations because wind direction changes frequently and the sounds of water muffle or hide your sound of approach.
Always exercise an effort to look for berries, bear signs and any movement in the underbrush. If you detect or spot a bear feeding, never approach. Reveal yourself to the bear from a safe distance by talking or yelling. The bear will usually retreat, if it doesn’t you must choose another trail.
In Whistler Valley through August, Red-osier dogwood berries are ripening. These white berries grow in shrubs around parks, trails, residential areas and stream banks. Shrubs form 1-3 metre high dense hedges. Bears feeding in these shrubs are sometimes difficult to detect. Extreme caution should be exercised around these shrubs from now until late October.
Michael Allen can be heard on Mountain FM’s Mountain Monitor program the fourth Tuesday of each month. Listen Aug. 27 at noon.