Bear Update: 

Open bear dens

Bear Researcher

PARADISE VALLEY — The three-year-old female black bear pushes through deep snow. The sun has fallen and darkness invades the forested mountain slope. A cold, dry wind erupts from the north. Her descent detours as she rounds a steep outcrop along the ridge. She hesitates biting at snow balls caught in the guard hairs of her fore-legs. A strong familiar scent floods her nasal passage. Her jaws close and head lifts. Slowly, she moves her head to the right, nose and mouth working in unison to locate the source. As large ears cup forward with sudden confirmation, in a horrifying crash the 70-kg black bear is knocked completely out of her snowy foothold.

Lying face down in dry powder snow a stillness descends into the forest. The young black bear stirs shaking eyesight into partial focus. A different scent now trickles in through partial-working olfactory. Red dots and splatters come into view. Regaining full composure the young black bear stares down at splatters of blood-stained snow. She trembles and groans and raises her head only to find a splinter of yellow cedar wedged uncomfortably against the underside of her neck. Lifting her head she peers out in astonishment through the rough exterior of the tree cavity den’s entrance. A heavy sigh signals relief from would-be terror. She trembles again and cautiously sways her head sensing the outward slope should the larger bear come to life.

She lies awake at 1,650 metres elevation, looking east, and totally exposed. She has woken several times since Dec 10 when she arrived and cleaned out the old den, but, not to dreams. At first she slept and rested soundly. Then heavy rains came and she woke many times each week. Winter’s security blanket deteriorated, offering her to the ambient invaders of fluctuating barometric pressures. The tree well outside her winter lair is bare. Shrubs of huckleberry and rhododendron that should be well insulated under 300 cm of snow stand naked to the dangers of temperature change. Each time she wakes her young heart beats faster, pumping more blood to wake her metabolic shutdown. It takes energy to do this. A frequently aroused bear may utilize its metabolic fat too quickly, diminishing its hibernation stores.

A bear is not supposed to hear running water during winter but she did for several days. At one point she rose but dared not venture from the den. Although it rained daily her den cavity remained dry and so did she. But she worries. The fall was tough – her second fall on her own and after summer the berries were difficult to find and scattered everywhere. She remembers the intense heat of August, shrubs full of sweet berries, and many other hungry bears. But it didn’t last. She found this den in early October during one of her daily forays for scattered berries. The abrupt end to August’s concentrated berry crop forced her to venture across the boundaries of her familiar 20-km feeding and bedding area.

The female black bear pushes back from the entrance, extending her legs outward with her body now positioned against the rear of the den cavity. This den was the ninth old tree she checked and the only one that satisfied her requirements – remote, dry and intact, and bear stink free. Last winter she slept within distance of a very loud machine. The noise did not last as mother-nature closed her ears to winter’s manmade activities. This year her senses guided her further from man, where more snow might not exist but remoteness should allow less disturbance with an open entrance. She blinks into the night sky and as her slightly underweight body begins to sense a drop in barometric pressure (promising snow), a large snowflake whirls in through the dead tree’s entrance and melts on her nose.

Michael Allen is a bear researcher studying the behaviour, population, and denning ecology of Whistler black bears since 1994. For more information contact 604-902-1660 or e-mail mallen_coastbear@direct.ca . Thanks to Pique Newsmagazine for sponsorship of this column.

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