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Early berry ripening could force bears into valley

Bear researcher expects more bear problems in fall

Bear complaints may have slowed down a little in recent weeks but Whistler’s resident black bear researcher Michael Allen is predicting an unusually busy fall for bear activity in the valley.

"By mid-September we could get back into a really busy fall with bear complaints and just more bear activity in the valley, bears pushing a little bit more," he said this week.

Berry crops are ripening much earlier than usual this year said Allen, due to the unusually warm temperatures. Most shrubs are about two to three weeks early and some plants are up to a month early.

"So basically everything is ripe now as far as it can go, right to the tree line, which is pretty significant," he said.

"Bears are feeding right now where they would normally feed three weeks from now."

He has seen 34 bears feeding at high elevation on the north slope of Whistler Mountain within a three kilometre square radius. The bears aren’t normally at the top of Green Acres until early to mid-September, he said.

The bears are congregating there for several reasons. In addition to the plentiful food source, which makes it very efficient to forage, the bears are also finding it difficult to find good clumps of food at mid-elevation and the valley bottom.

The valley crop ripened as early as mid to late June this year and the mid-elevation crop ripened in patches, forcing the bears to look for food in higher elevations. And they’ve found it there in abundance.

Allen said bears are feeding from 15 to 18 hours every day, some not even taking a break from their feasting during the night.

"What it boils down to is you’ve got a loaded berry crop up there, it’s very good," said Allen.

"And you’ve got a lot of bears. But they’re going to eat it all. That’s what’s happening."

Once they exhaust the ripened berries up high, the bears will fan out in search of more food.

Allen predicts some bears will find that food at the clumps of mountain ash shrub or dogwood shrub that’s used in landscaping in the valley. He points to prime spots in front of the police station, the library/museum and the Blackcomb administration building.

In the end it will be the yearlings, cubs and pregnant females that will feel the strain of finding food.

"This is Mother Nature’s ways of checking the population," explained Allen.

"In the last two years we’ve had over 40 cubs produced because the last two years we’ve had good berry crops. This is part of the cycle. Now, in 2004, we’re starting off with a good one (berry crop) but it’s probably going to crash. This will knock down cub production next winter and this is what we want."

Bear complaints spiked earlier this summer because of the sheer abundance of cubs and yearlings running around and getting into trouble, among other things.

Even if the weather were to change in coming weeks, Allen said it’s too late. The bears will not have any significant areas of food by mid to late September, which will leave them four or five weeks shy of going into a den with nothing major to eat.

"Even if we did get cooler weather now the high elevation berry crop is pretty full and it’s a full three weeks early, and that’s the bottom line."