Bear Update: 

Bear response to the worst fall food shortage in 11 years


Bear Researcher

Whistler Black Bear Project

Just inside a small section of second growth forest between the Singing Pass hiking trail and a Whistler Mountain bike trail, waits the dominant female black bear to the north slope of Whistler Mountain. Jeanie, a 100-kg brown-phase 14-year-old mother sits with her two brown 10-month old cubs.

Her son, at 55 kg, slumps over some exposed roots of a struggling western hemlock, his black nose shoved into the dried coarse moss sniffing at the substrate hoping to eradicate the season’s last carpenter ant.

Her daughter, Juniper, at 51 kg, sits promptly at her mom’s side watching, refusing the possibility of leaving her mom and remembering summer’s bad experience. From Aug. 21 to Sept.1 Juniper became separated from her mother and brother. For 11 days Jeanie and son continued along their forays of berry and ant feeding. On Sept. 1 the family was located reunited within Jeanie’s familiar circuit of feeding.

Despite the fact the cubs are 5-8 kg underweight they are visually some of the healthiest cubs in Whistler this fall.

Just 30-metres from the bear family a large dirt bike-like mountain bike storms to the bottom of Whistler Mountain. Once a lush green ski out, the bottom of Whistler Mountain has been transformed into a biker-cross zone of high gravel mounds with tails of dust. Crowds of onlookers marvel at the brave and skilled riders descending into the heart of Whistler Village.

Temperatures climb into the mid-20s. For Oct. 1 that’s hot, and for starving stressed-out bears it adds to the nightmare. So at the start to this beautiful sunny weekend, where business is booming and people are out and about enjoying Whistler’s pristine setting, three bears huddle into the fragmented sliver of second growth cover and wait. But wait for what? A break in the crowds, a magical food source to appear, the cover of darkness?

Whistler bears are experiencing the worst natural food shortage in 11 years. Since 1994, I have monitored the abundance of huckleberries and blueberries ( Vaccinium spp. ) and mountain-ash ( Sorbus sitchensis ) berries, the key summer-fall berry crop, in select habitats yielding higher berry concentrations. These berries seasonally attract large numbers of bears. Berries usually ripen gradually, from valley to sub alpine elevations from July to September, allowing bears to follow and forage that phenological progression. Berries typically peak during mid-August through September, with berry drop beginning in late September.

In a good fall, bears would feel fat by mid-October, begin moving to and preparing dens in the last two weeks of October and enter dens during November at the onset of snowfall. This year, continuous sunny days with high temperatures from May to July ripened the berries so quickly that berries at sub-alpine elevations were ripening the same time berries were ripening at mid-mountain. This near synchronicity of berry ripening at different elevations produced a full berry crop during three-four weeks. During August every berry in Whistler was available to bears from valley bottom to the high alpine. Continued hot weather shrivelled valley to mid-mountain berries, forcing bears into higher elevations to consume the final and most important portion of the crop.

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