BEAR UPDATE: Are Whistler black bears starving?
By Michael Allen
Black Bear Researcher
In the middle of the ski trail a blonde ridge of fur slumps motionless in a dense carpet of clover and horsetail. A blackish cloud of mosquitoes, black flies and other noxious insects hover in a blanket across the ski slope. The remains of the evening sunlit rays penetrate the insect band and flood the high elevation slope with a spectrum of oranges. I pull over and get out of my truck. Immediately my upper body succumbs to a cloud of relentless irritants. I walk across the ski trail slope talking quietly. No response.
The dorsal mound of fur appears lifeless — concern arises — never before have I found a dead bear in the ski area. I approach slowly, talking loud enough that a sleeping bear would or should awake. I stop 3 metres away when the bear moves its head.
Through the half-metre high fireweed and grass I can see the head moving slowly between the forelegs. Jeanie lays sprawled on her belly in the deep carpet while grazing on a patch of clover between her forelegs. She is thin, perhaps 50-pounds underweight.
A resident mother to Whistler Mountain, Jeanie separated from her 18-month-old son in early June and subsequently mated in late June 1999.
Jeanie emerged from her den in late May and has been consuming green vegetation (clover, horsetail, grass) ever since. Now, three months later, she is restricted to grazing on clover due to a failure in berries at mid-elevations and delay in berry ripening at higher elevations. In a good berry season, she would be consuming the sugar-rich berries during mid-late July.
Suddenly, she rises to all fours, pushing her face and ears along the ground apparently trying to drive the insect inhabitants out. Only when Jeanie rose could I see the results of a bear not having access to fat-producing foods. Before me was a walking profile of her skeleton: shoulders, forelegs, ribs, and hind legs all clearly defined with no covering fat layers. It looked as if she was actually losing weight. The rigors of diverse topography, scattered non-fattening foods, and heat contribute to calorie burn-up, not build-up.
So is Jeanie starving? I would say no for now but her body is becoming dangerously close to exhausting all resources unless she can consume berries.
She rises again, paws at her ears furiously, gives me a quick glance (almost as if I'm supposed to help), collapses onto her belly with legs spread-eagled and begins grazing. Bears are masters of energy conservation.
Huckleberries ripened one month late in the valley this year, during late July, and are currently abundant through most valley habitats — especially close to residential subdivisions where berry shrubs are enhanced.
Berry ripening is scattered from lower (700 metres) to mid-elevation slopes (1,000-1,300 metres) as a result of late spring berry flower failures, due to extreme temperature changes. The high elevation (> 1,300 metres) berry crop has been buried under snow during spring and early summer, insulating shoot/flower development from weather inflictions. These berries are currently abundant in the green fruit swell stage. If the warm weather continues berries will begin ripening during early- or mid-September.
Large, concentrated shrub fields like Green Acres ski trail on Whistler Mountain yield eight species of berries (three of four Vaccinium species) and in 1998 supported 26 feeding bears from August to mid-September before drought conditions dropped the berries.
Through late August valley bear activity is high and will continue until denning, with many bears likely remaining active through November. Many bears are thin and slightly underweight, especially sub-adults (
< 4 years old). However, black bears are extremely resilient and adaptable. They are undoubtedly used to a history of periods of poor berry seasons and have alternative food sources.
Summer-fall bear foods other than huckleberries are orange mountain ash berries, red elderberries, white- or red-osier dogwood berries and insects (carpenter ants and termites). Bears have been foraging through valley habitats tearing apart rotten logs and stumps searching for insects as a source of protein. Some bears will try more than ever now to access human food garbage. Any type of organic foods or even trace smells will attract bears, lead to subsequent visits and result in human-bear conflicts and destruction of the bear.
Many people have reported bear sightings/activity and I appreciate the interesting input. This information guides specific bear observations.
Whistler black bear research is funded by Coast Mountain Black Bear Resources. Bear ecology displays can be viewed in the valley at the Whistler Museum and on Whistler Mountain at the Roundhouse Lodge. Black bear ecology and awareness slide shows are presented at the Whistler Museum every Wednesday through Sept. 8, 1999. Bear Update columns are sponsored by Pique Newsmagazine. Questions or information about black bears call 935-1176.