Bear Update 

Berries in Backyards and Fall Berry Forecast

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Michael Allen

Whistler Black Bear Project

Berries are the most important food to Whistler black bears.

Whistler bears likely do not have access to spawning salmon (it’s unknown if large adult males travel to Squamish or Birken to fish). By way of comparison, in addition to berries, Pemberton and Squamish black bears have access to spawning salmon from September through December as well as a variety of agricultural crops.

The most preferred berries in Whistler are Vaccinium (huckleberry and blueberry). They are sweet and widespread enough to deliver the necessary intake for bears to gain weight and store the required fats for successful hibernation and reproduction. Important secondary berries are Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus), Sitka-mountain ash (Sorbus sitchensis), high bush cranberry (Viburnum edule), and Red-osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera). All berries, especially Vaccinium, thrive in residential greenbelts because vigor and production are enhanced through increased sunlight and reduced competition through the removal of conifers.

Bears began feeding on berries at valley-bottom elevations (650 meters) around mid-June. Berries do bring bears close into backyards but I feel that these berry-feeding bears should be tolerated and not chased away. After 11 years of research, attempting to define the boundaries of where bears can and cannot forage natural berries is still extremely difficult.

Berries are the critical summer-fall food for local bears. There is no alternate natural food source in Whistler.

Deterring bears from berry feeding disrupts their annual biology and introduces ripples in their fall behavior with repercussions into their abilities to gain sufficient weight for winter hibernation and cub production.

Berries serve as a buffer to human conflict activities. If bears are pushed from berries what other natural food can match their intake? Nothing but human food. If we deter bears from backyard berries, then human-bear conflicts may increase.

A misconception also exists that during good berry crops all bears benefit from the abundance. Yearling and sub-adult bears (2-3 year olds) are frequently pushed from concentrated berry habitats during peak feeding periods (September) by older dominant bears and families. Avoiding competing bears, younger bears learn to feed closer to people or during the post-berry peak period (October) on scattered berries.

If you do not want bears berry-feeding near your residence then pick all berries or fruits before ripening. Bears survey potential berry patches during pre-ripening periods to test (smell and taste) the ripening progress. If bears see that berries are gone they should move to an alternate berry source. Landscapers should also not encourage the unnatural availability of berries by planting natural species that are enhanced in form (such as mountain-ash growing as trees). Some of the significant fall berries planted by landscapers are mountain-ash and red-osier dogwood. Landscapers may be planting these species in support of using native plant species rather than non-native species, which in turns encourages the occurrence of evasive species.

Potential Shortfall in September Berry Crop

Due to the warmer, drier late spring and early summer, berries at higher elevations (above 1,400 meters) are ahead of seasonal phenology (plant development). Usually, if berries ripen earlier they have the tendency to drop earlier.

During the normal course of fall activity, berries deplete by mid-October, weight-satisfied bears move to denning areas, and the onset of snow pushes them into dens during November. However, as most know, we don’t seem to have normal weather patterns anymore. Lately, the weather trend is for extremes. Huckleberries at 1,500 meters elevation on the north-slope of Whistler Mountain are early – there’s fruit swell and signs of coloring. Bears are already feeding on the white berries of red-osier dogwood in the valley when this berry is normally foraged in mid-late August.

If drought-like conditions continue this summer, bear’s may be faced with an earlier berry drop at mid-high elevations (1,200-1,500 meters) during mid-late September, which may have the potential to increase human-bear conflicts during October.

Weekly Bear Awareness Sessions

In response to the increase in human-bear conflicts I will be offering a 60-minute bear awareness presentation/discussion session each Friday from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the Riverside Campground and each Saturday (beginning Aug 7) from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the Whistler Museum Society Annex (on Main street opposite Milestones restaurant).

These informal sessions allow locals and visitors to understand what’s going with the bear population and how changing bear behavior is influencing our relationship. Proactive measures such as bear proofing backyards and safety – dealing with persistent bears – will be discussed. These bear awareness sessions are offered in partnership with Riverside Campground and Whistler Museum Society. Bear behavior and ecology handouts are available.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the Spring Bear count. The results will be posted in 2 weeks.

Questions or information on bears please call me at 902-1660 or e-mail mallen_coastbear@direct.ca .

Thanks to Pique Newsmagazine for sponsorship of Bear Update columns.

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