Bear-y nice winter for wandering adult
BBC to make stars of Whistler black bears
By Chris Woodall
A Whistler adult black bear weighing 500-600 pounds has not gone into winter hibernation like most of his kin, but has been visiting the landfill dump.
The bear's movements are being tracked by black bear researcher Mike Allen.
"He fed at the landfill regularly until Jan. 8," says Allen, who has been in familiar eye contact with the old boy. "He has a lot of scars and is 15-plus years old. That's pushing it for a bear here."
In any case, it's a big bear. "He has a very large head," Allen says, spacing his hands about two feet apart.
Allen has also kept tabs on the bear's whereabouts using hi-tech "GPS" (global positioning system) satellite equipment to plot exactly where the bear's tracks are. "I hang back so I don't bias his movements."
This January has been warmer than usual, which may account for the adult bear's habits.
"He is hibernating, but it's different from denning," Allen says. The hibernation instinct starts in August when the bear starts craving a lot of food.
Bears go into dens to escape harsh winter conditions, "but this guy hasn't denned," Allen says. "This is more of an exception than a rule.
"He's the first bear in five years that I've studied bears here that has made it through New Year's without denning," he says. "Usually they're all in dens by Christmas."
Instead, the old fellow had taken to making a casual routine of sleeping in the forest, then wandering over to the landfill for lunch.
"The fall berry crop was bad up high so he stayed at the landfill," Allen says, noting that the bear probably has a healthy five-inch layer of fat on him.
Indeed, he may have finally had his fill of the landfill so he can settle down for a lengthy nap. "On Jan. 9 he left the landfill dump area and moved into the interpretative forest 8km away," Allen says. A minus-17C temperature that day may have prompted him, but the bear has established a daybed deep in old growth hemlock forest.
Allen's thorough black bear research has attracted the interest of the British TV network, the BBC. "We're in the preparation stage to do a documentary. We'll be filming a year in the life of Whistler's black bears, picking on two bear families, a yearling and some adults."
The documentary will be taking a neutral, unbiased approach, Allen says. "We won't be making judgements on the landfill's electric fence situation, for example."
Allen has been hired as the scientific advisor. "It secures another year of research."
Skyline Film's Jeff Turner, who has 13 year's experience filming wildlife, including a movie called "Island of the Ghost Bear," will operate the movie camera while shooting at the Whistler/Blackcomb Interpretative Forest and at the landfill.
But it definitely won't be "lights, camera, action!"
"We'll have a fairly low-key impact on the bears," Allen says, who has had uneasy experiences with TV news crews who made a noisy mess of things when they accompanied Allen on forays to observe Whistler's bear populations.
Filming starts in February to capture the activity of the wandering adult.
It won't be long before the rest of the black bears get back to work.
"Feb. 27 is the earliest I've seen them move around and March 6 is the earliest they've been at the landfill," Allen says.
Whistler's messier human residents should take note that any garbage they've left outside — especially if the bags were ripped open at some point — are likely to attract freshly ravenous bears looking for a spring snack.
"I'm finding that the bears are adapting to staying out later (in the fall) and emerging from their dens earlier (in the spring) because they know the food sources are there," Allen says. "It's a habit developed over the 18-19 years the dump's been open and over several generations."
When the bears emerge, they will have lost 30-40 per cent of their autumn weight, Allen says, making for some very hungry bruins.
What happens to a hibernating bear is still pretty much a mystery.
"When bears are in their den, they don't produce solid waste," Allen says. "They do produce urine, but it stays in the bladder where it breaks down and is re-absorbed as water."
Then there's the faecal plug, a sort of "cork" for the bowels.
"There's a little bit of mystery with the butt plug," Allen says. "I've only found about 20 in the five years I've researched these bears."
The plug is made up of bits of wood, pine needles and dirt the bear has digested. In spring, bears eat a lot of roughage to help push out the butt plug.
"It smells pretty bad," Allen says of the ones he finds. Normal bear scat has little or no smell.
Allen's five years of research is being collected in a report that will be finished by early April for publication in a scientific journal.
As for the BBC film footage (it's too early to say when the documentary will come out), Allen hopes to use it as a teaching aid.