Under your feet, a black bear may sleep
Bears may be out of sight during the winter, but we still share space with them
By Robyn Cubie
Picture this: it is one of those blue-sky, three-foot fresh powder days and you are on top of Whistler Mountain, a slice of heaven with nothing under your board or skis but kilometres of fresh untracked powder — and perhaps the odd sleeping black bear.
That last factor isn’t something we tend to consider when eyeing up the perfect run. But come the ski season, around 70 bears hibernate the winter away on or near Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. Black bear researcher Michael Allen says dens are as close as 20 metres from the ski runs used by thousands of people a day during the peak season. Often located, in fact, just where we find that perfect powder when skiing between the trees.
"One snowboarder did hit a tree and the bear woke up. You could hear the bear inside, his claws scraping on the bark, and then he calmed down. The snowboarder just carried on, he had no idea," Allen chuckled.
"I’ve also found people sitting on top of a den eating lunch in January with 400 cm of snow between them and a sleeping bear," he added.
Until recent years, bears were frequently branded a problem in the Whistler Valley, especially when the formerly open landfill helped support up to 40 near the town. Since 1990, some 200 bears have been destroyed or relocated out of the valley and the current population is at its lowest in seven years, due to both human intervention and successive poor crops of their key fattening food, huckleberries.
Despite some bad press, these typically private and shy creatures have become a major tourist draw for the resort. Surveys carried out by Whistler-Blackcomb show that summer visitors’ biggest disappointment is if they don’t see a bear. The resort’s experiment with high-end black bear tours over the past few months has proven a big success. In short, black bears are entering a new era in the public consciousness and carving themselves a strong niche in the "Whistler experience."
Coming from New Zealand, where the most comparable furry wild animal is a possum, I wasn’t about to turn down an opportunity to track black bears with Allen.
Tracking bears in late fall is a sensitive issue, since most alpine bears move to their dens in the first two weeks of November and can feel threatened if their winter home smells of humans. Bears on the valley floor tend to stay out until December or even early January. The best time to find the alpine bears is a few days after the first significant snowfall, as some may sleep in the timber during the storm before making their way to a den. Of course, the snow also makes paw prints easy to follow.
My day of tracking bears dawned cold, rainy and dismal, as I hunted around for my wet weather gear. However, 10 minutes after leaving the valley and driving up Whistler Mountain we were in another world. As the snow fell softly on the perfectly still, white, semi-forested landscape, we had our first surprise encounter. Bounding through the chest-deep snow, the black bear seemed remarkably agile for its apparent bulk, pausing to stop and study us upon reaching a safe distance. Its curiosity satisfied, it left after a few minutes, no doubt onto more interesting things.
Not far from there, Allen pointed out an abandoned den in the base of a yellow cedar tree.
"You can see its entrance faces down slope to avoid snow falling in, but this entrance has got too big. The inside cavity provides a physical barrier, shielding the bear from wind, from temperature to a certain degree and most importantly from moisture — the snow and rain."
The dens of choice for coastal B.C and Whistler bears are big, old growth trees with rotten centres, which can be scraped out above the root mass to provide an elevated floor. Other typical black bear dens are dug under a boulder in the ground but the excess water from snowmelt and rain generally makes for a watery home in this part of Canada.
Allen says black bears are true hibernators in that they don’t store food like squirrels do or consume food during their hibernation period. But he says they are not heavy sleepers and become alert instantly once awoken.
"They have woken with me around the den at minus 40 or plus five, so temperature doesn’t have a lot to do with it. Most of them know me and I talk a little bit, so if they do wake up, they are not alarmed."
He says bears sleep heaviest from January through to March. They are likely to abandon their dens early or late in the season if disturbed. As a precaution against this, Allen monitors the dens most likely to become active by tying string across the entrance in early fall, rather than directly approaching the sites.
The second den we visit is the smallest one on Whistler Mountain. A broken string and bear hair at the entrance provide a visible sign of a recent inspection. It is hard to imagine a bear squeezing through the 28cm-wide entrance into the 65cm diameter cavity inside the tree., but 100-pound Hailey the bear did just that during the 1998/99 winter season. Allen watched her scrape out her den from a few feet away. He believes Hailey has been shot in the valley because he hasn’t seen her in 18 months and females tend to stay close to their natal territory. He says this den, which is 29 metres from an intermediate blue ski run, is likely to be used again by another black bear because it is intact.
For many of us, looking into the home of a sleeping bear would be a bad idea. But depending on the age and sex of the bear, Allen gets as close as 80cm from its face when monitoring respiration rates. Contrary to popular belief, female bears are far more tolerant and accepting of human company than adult male bears, even when they have cubs, he said.
"I shine a light in and watch the body expand while using a stop-watch. On average a bear inhales every 45 seconds but I have measured 35 to 57 seconds between breaths and then they shiver. The shiver is to keep their muscles active."
On one occasion in the B.C. Interior, Allen actually reached in and took a bear’s pulse. He admits that was an unusual event.
"It was a two year old female who was quite habituated to me. She stretched out her back leg and exposed her femoral so I put two fingers lightly across that and took her pulse. It was going about 8 or 10 beats." The bear apparently opened her eyes once then went back to sleep.
"In comparison, my heart was going about 95 beats a minute," he laughed.
So how much peace can a bear get sleeping on a mountain over-run by a million adrenaline-pumped skiers and boarders? Plenty, according to Allen, provided there is enough snow cover to muffle the noise.
"When I first came to Whistler-Blackcomb one of the first things they asked me was, do you think bears den in the ski area? I said probably not because there are so many disturbances. In the last seven years I have counted 52 dens within the two ski areas, which will teach me for opening my mouth too quick!"
He says his research has revealed ski area bears do den close to human winter recreational activity, and even near snow guns — a phenomenon not uncovered by other studies.
Allen frequently emphasises he is not a trained biologist — his findings being purely based on field work rather than formal academic qualifications. He says his long-term goal is to gain a Masters degree in bear biology. In the meantime, however, his authority lies in the thousands upon thousands of hours spent monitoring, weighing and even sleeping near bears in all weather conditions, at all hours, in a bid to understand what makes them tick.
Whistler-Blackcomb has been pulled into his quest along the way. Arthur DeJong, the mountain planning and environmental resource manager, recalls his first meeting with Allen in the early 1990s.
"This shy, broad-shouldered, spiky-haired kinda bear looking guy walked into my office and asked if he could so some bear research on the mountain. I was very busy at the time but asked if he had any material he could show me. A big smile came to his face and he opened up a photo album full of headshots, like mug shots, of bears. I asked what size telephoto lens was used and he replied: ‘I don’t use a telephoto.’ That stopped me in my tracks. I sat him down and said you and I need to talk."
DeJong says from the outset he recognized how Allen’s research could help back his own vision of environmentally positive sustainable development.
"It worries me if people try to pretend everything is all right here in Whistler because it is not. Our own survival as a species relies on the interdependence of all life and we need to do our bit in rectifying the global degradation that is going on."
DeJong believes education is the key to getting the message across.
"If you can make people connect with one species, like a bear, it starts getting people thinking about nature and how to take better care of natural eco-systems," DeJong says.
In practical terms, this means keeping bears out of trouble by bear-proofing garbage in the valley and re-seeding ski runs with clover and grasses as a summer food source — a project already well underway by DeJong’s department.
More ambitious plans may be in the pipeline, with the planned building of a $5 million Mountain Ecology and Black Bear Research Centre at Olympic Station on Whistler Mountain by 2005. Features of the proposed three-storey centre include specialist alpine geology, ecology and glaciology rooms, a lecture theatre, stream ecology displays and web-cams viewing inside dens, for witnessing events such as bear birthing. DeJong says funding for the centre is uncertain but the goal is to keep it at the grassroots level initially, so the local community and schools take ownership of it.
The bear viewing tours started last spring by DeJong and Allen will provide some of the necessary capital, with $50,000 raised so far. At $170 per client it is probably out of reach of the average backpacker’s budget. DeJong admits that he was apprehensive about charging so much but says the goal was to keep the tours small and non-intrusive. He says the customer feedback has been great, including the infamous tour, when two posh English ladies met nature at its most natural.
"It was mating season and these two bears started doing it and went on and on and on. It looked a little bizarre because the two ladies looked like they really belonged on the edge of a polo or cricket match, not out in the Canadian wilderness watching this particular scene. And there was dead, stone silence. We thought they would be freaked out by this show and demand their money back but after five minutes of silence one lady looked at the other and said, ‘Don’t you wish our husbands were more like that?’ Needless to say, the tour was a success."
Next spring and summer DeJong hopes to expand the service to include general alpine and marmot theme tours run by other local outdoor specialists and ecologists. Whistler-Blackcomb also plans to market a book on bears compiled by Allen this Christmas as a fund-raiser.
Michael Allen says by making bears more personal, people may open their minds and learn what a bear must go through in a year to survive.
"The public ultimately decide if a bear lives or dies," he says. "I mean, who makes a bear complaint? If you can teach people to tolerate and understand what the bear is, you have made all the difference in the world."
Having spoken with more than 20,000 school children in the Sea to Sky corridor about bears, Allen is doing his best to get this message across. He believes kids today are more informed than many adults.
"They have lost the Walt Disney concept of cute bears and our culture’s tradition of fearing bears, wolves and cougars, for example. We should always respect that they can be dangerous but for the most part, they are not when treated right."
In fact, Allen believes humans had better get used to co-existing with bears, since global warming is likely to bring both physically closer. He points out the main food for Whistler’s black bears are huckleberries, which grow at both high and low elevations.
"A major characteristic of global warming is small shifts in temperature, which can have a huge effect on high elevation huckleberry crops especially. Crop failures up high will force bears down into the valley where people live."
Allen says this past season’s crop has been the best in seven years, and as a result at least nine bears have enough weight to carry successful pregnancies. But he says future crop performances will be less predictable under a global warming scenario.
Allen hopes to gain enough financial backing to continue his work studying Whistler’s black bears for at least another 15 years, in order to assess the next generation. The signs look positive. There is no shortage of media interest in the subject, with interviews and stories already produced by BBC television, Geoline German children’s magazine and CBC. A multi-media company has also produced a CD-ROM.
As well, Allen’s reputation as a bear man — a horse whisperer among bears, if you will — is growing. It is an image he rejects outright.
He says the trust that has developed between him and Whistler’s bears has evolved over time.
"I know an incredible amount about their life history. I know where they sleep, where they feed, where they mate, where they den, how they relate to other bears, other animals, me. All this information helps me to approach them and to read body language," he says.
Allen believes almost anyone can strike up a similar relationship with bears, provided they have the right attitude and understanding.
"I am just open-minded towards bears. They are incredibly intelligent animals that have no reason to bother you if you appear non-threatening and have no food. I don’t think there is anything special about me."
Whatever the explanation, when Michael Allen casually drops in conversation that wild bears come and sit next to him by choice when he’s out in the mountains, it sure sounds like a gift.
So the next time you glide off the ski lift, take a moment to think of the bear that may be sleeping under your feet somewhere as you slide down the mountain. It’s pretty special isn’t it?