Four bears with remarkably different lives 

Bear researcher offers glimpse into the daily lives of the Sea to Sky's ursine residents

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MICHAEL ALLEN - BEAR AWARE Mya, a nine-year-old mother black bear with a visually distinct chest marking.
  • PHOTO by michael allen
  • BEAR AWARE Mya, a nine-year-old mother black bear with a visually distinct chest marking.

The lives of bears in the Sea to Sky can be remarkably different depending on their life cycle and species.

Sometimes taking a moment to look at a snapshot of a bear can allow people to gain insight into a bear's life.

I'm always reminded of the differences in the lives of Sea-to-Sky bears struggling to survive across changing landscapes influenced by man.

But, bears are bears — resourceful, adaptable, highly intelligent and tough.

The Grizzly

A purple salmonberry flower shudders, sprinkling raindrops to the forest floor. Lush green flora in this awakening rainforest is pushed aside. Like a storm cloud suddenly appearing across a vibrant blue sky, the dark shadow of a 270-kilogram grizzly bear hesitates in stride, thrusting his robust rostrum into rich dark earth upturned by multiple elk tracks.

The tracks show up here and there along a trail he's been following for three kilometres, but the scent is overwhelming.

A prominent ridge divides the top of his skull — the saggital crest — anchoring the massive muscles giving shape to an enormous head. Protruding lips snip at salmonberry flowers and curled shoots of deer fern as he begins another stride.

In this deciduous jungle of alder, maple, elder berry and devil's club, he continues following the river's edge. He is roughly 21 km northwest of Squamish.

He stops at an island of coniferous old-growth forest; here, the ground is shredded into depressions from the bodies of resting elk. A stream swollen with melting snow washes through the forest nearby... this place, he remembers from last fall, catching and feeding on salmon.

Suddenly, a different scent permeates his nasal passage. His head swings left and at a distance of only 30 centimetres, sniffs in the direction of a small green box fastened to a tree 90 cm off the ground. Satisfied that there is no immediate threat, he places his nose against the plastic housing, pushing droplets of respiration against the lens window.

Unaware that he is being photographed, he swings away from the camera in the tree and heads back to the elk trail.

This bear is the apex of his environment yet scents of man make him uneasy, perhaps reminding him that he too can be vulnerable.

(Turn to page 32 for Pique's feature story on the importance of collaring grizzlies.)

The cub

A lone black bear cub sits at the edge of a skunk cabbage swamp staring at a big yellow smelly flower.

He is 13 km from the grizzly bear. A rear leg scratches feverishly at his neck. His eyes are puffy with surrounding hair missing from mite/tick irritation over winter.

Alone since last fall, abandoned by or orphaned from his mother, he remembers confusion, fear and the struggle to find food.

It was hot and dry then with few berries, but in the late fall he found salmon. They were hard to catch at first but soon he found them dead along a creek bank near a hatchery.

He ate as much as he could while trying to avoid places with other bears' scents.

A coyote chased him up a tree several times, so he began sleeping in trees overnight.

He ate his last fish on Christmas Day then climbed up to Brohm Lake. He found a rock overhang on a steep slope that was dry and dark. He slept there at first, but no other animals bothered him so he stayed the winter.

Bear cubs are anything but helpless. A six-month old black bear cub's skull is two-thirds brain case.

A few bites of skunk cabbage and he quickly moves on to grasses and pussy willows — and because of early, hot weather he sniffs out protein-rich ant nests.

In the evening, he moves closer to the highway, grazing grasses, clover, and dandelions — it's dangerous but there is good food.

Motherless at nine months and fighting to stay alive through winter, he is now almost 17 months old — close to the time he would normally be leaving his mother. Perhaps his mother pushed him away earlier last fall to avoid her risk of mortality over winter following an extremely poor berry crop.

For this lone bear cub, at the bottom of the food chain, survival will be tough maturing at three to fours years old and fighting for range at five to seven years old. Immature male bears suffer the highest mortality.

The Male black bear

Only four kilometres from the bear cub, a large healthy male black bear stands in the Cheekye River, his 350-pound (159-kilogram) frame is pylon-rigid as he begins pushing through whitewater.

He welcomes the cold against his tired, unused winter muscles. It takes him less than 40 seconds to cross the small, but raging, river.

Climbing up the rocky bank with a dual layer of water-logged winter coat seems more of a struggle than crossing the river itself.

He stands a few seconds dripping on the rocks, head hung low, panting. A sudden tremor erupts into a violent shake from head to flank as trapped river water from his guard hair sprays over the rocks.

Head lifting, scenting, he climbs to the top of the riverbank and across a massive downed cedar tree disappearing into a mixed forest of dense underbrush.

The Mother Bear

A nine-year old mother black bear lies in the fetal position, her 17-month-old daughter nestled behind her in a deep daybed cradled next to an old-growth Douglas fir tree. They are some 40 km northeast of the large male black bear crossing the river and the grizzly bear following the elk trail — in Whistler. They are also survivors of 2015's drought and poor berry crop.

She lost her son during last spring's mating season to an aggressive male, but perhaps this lightened the maternal load enough to give mom and daughter an edge in surviving winter.

As evening falls she will descend to a ski slope grazing succulent sweet greens rich in healing and pain-killing properties. In three to six weeks their lives will change: mom will begin her third breeding cycle and her daughter must begin the arduous life of an independent bear.

Always exercise respect with these animals. Whether at home securing attractants, or on the trail biking, hiking or walking your dog, be aware of your surroundings and give bears plenty of room.

And if you are a hunter, know what you are shooting at. Do not shoot the first black shape you see.

Mothers with cubs born this year are now active and cubs can be treed and difficult to see. Mothers are not large animals, weighing between 50 and 120 kg. Nursing mothers can be identified by locating two swollen teats on either side of their upper chest.

It is unlawful to shoot at or destroy bear family groups.

In Whistler, the unofficial bear count so far is a minimum of 25 black bears — nine adult males, seven adult females, and nine immature (less than four years old) from, and including, the Callaghan Valley to Green Lake. I haven't spotted any cubs-of-the-year yet.

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