Bear Update: Whistler’s black bear sub-population
By Michael Allen
Black Bear Researcher
The most frequent question I have been asked while conducting research on black bears in Whistler is "How many bears actually live in the valley?" A difficult question, influenced by many aspects of bear ecology, but for obvious reasons and important one.
Due to the extent and complexity of data collected on Whistler’s black bear population, three columns will cover this topic. The last column revealed the producers of the population, the mother bears. This column will describe how I collected the data and the third will reveal the numbers of bears in each sub-population, with an estimate of the valley population.
The difficulty in determining population numbers for bears lies in their way of life. Bears are typically shy, secretive, forest-dwelling creatures reluctant to remain in open areas away from escape cover for long periods. This makes identifying and counting them in forested habitats difficult.
Since the 1960s, black bear habitat has been altered through changes from logging, silviculture prescriptions, wild fires, recreation and human development. The original forested habitat which bears inhabited has now been fragmented into a mosaic of forested openings in varying stages of growth. These open areas have increased the diversity of habitat, including the abundance of primary soft mast (berries) bear food plant species. In order to exploit these high quality food resources, black bears have adapted to using open areas for longer periods of time. High quality habitat became concentrated in time (season) and space (micro-habitat). Thus, bears adapted to feeding in close proximity to one another and eventually to people.
Identifying and counting individual black bears in relatively open, high-quality food resource areas during each season is the basis of my research. By doing a census of each black bear sub-population for each food resource area during each season, inference could be made about the valley bear population from observations of each sub-population.
So I can take the question of how many bears actually live in the Whistler Valley and formulate two questions for each sub-population: What are the factors which cause the number of bears in a sub-population to a) increase and b) decrease?
Censuses were conducted from 1994 through 1996 in five food resource areas. The Whistler Municipal landfill was studied this whole time, while the interpretive forest and Blackcomb ski area were studied from 1995 through 1996. Censuses of the Whistler ski area and Lost Lake Park were begun this year. Censuses will continue for all five areas through 2003. A maximum of 10 years of census data will reveal long-term trends in black bear abundance and identify factors which regulate fluctuations.
Just a note on the valley’s October bear activity. Bears are remaining moderately active throughout the valley, with some coming down from higher elevations to forage for the remaining berries along the valley floor. Bears have also been active in the village perimeter through the night because garbage has been left out and it seems bins are never fully emptied. Almost every morning for the past week I have seen tracks of bears leading away from knocked over village garbage bins. These bears are commonly, but incorrectly, referred to as problem bears. These bears are hungry and are trying to fulfill their last fattening requirement for the winter denning season. Leaving any amount of garbage in a bin is inevitably creating a bear whose dependence on garbage increases with every visit. Garbage-conditioned bears do not live for very long in Whistler.
The early snowfalls will not hinder bear activity in the valley among bears which are still hungry. Some bears which have fattened sufficiently have already gone into their dens but you can count on bear activity well into November regardless of the weather.
Michael Allen can be heard the fourth Tuesday of each month on Mountain FM’s Mountain Monitor program.