Bear Update 

Winter lair of a big male

P>By Michael Allen

The large rectangular black and brown rostrum of the adult male black bear lay cradled in a bed of 30-cm deep snow. Each exhalation melted a trough-like run-way from the large flared nostrils. Black eyes were closed against the blue sky.

It was warm – unusually warm for Nov. 20 at 1,615 metres elevation. Yet the bear slept soundly in the coolness of the shaded daybed. One hundred and ten metres to the east was his winter lair, a massive yellow cedar snag, dead, yet standing, waiting to offer him the sanctuary of dryness and security that all bears seek to survive winter hibernation. The snag boasted a 163-cm diameter in the middle, and a greater diameter of 200-cm at the bole where the large bear constructed the hollowed cavity 12 days earlier.

Primal fore-claw construction took advantage of a hairline fracture in the flared trunk that faced slightly side-slope to the north. Experience reassured him that the approximate 50x70-cm size entrance constructed had the best chance of remaining covered longer with snow facing north or east. And to avoid the gravitational push of snow in through the opening the bear would orient the entrance down-slope or side-slope.

The tree cavity den stood in a partial opening where 40 per cent of the canopy cover was lost to wind throw. The opening was now filled with younger sub alpine fir and mountain hemlock trees. If one stood below the den it would be difficult to see the entrance. This security of clumped second growth conifers assured protection of the large entrance. The entire den was constructed in five hours.

In the warm afternoon sun the 235-kg male black bear was exhausted. Sleep took him for the next 11 hours. He awoke to a sky filled with bright lights. His large fatty rump had slid all the way through the debris pile of the old tree’s rotten insides and now lay only eight metres from the den’s entrance. With his right 13-cm wide forepaw he pushed himself upslope back into a makeshift bed of small fir trees. A coyote’s scent grabbed his attention but the lethargic demons robbed him once again of consciousness.

The large male black bear had had a good year. He felt fat and tired and was at his den before winter’s snow. There had been seasons where berries were scattered and greater distances needed to be covered to secure food and weight for winter. Active in early winter meant tolerating colder temperatures, deep snow, heavy rains, and human disturbance before leaving for his den. Den selection during natural fall food shortages was risky and he usually tried to find existing dens that he could select later into winter. This year, he had covered an area more than 180 square kilometres to breed, forage, and ultimately den. This year the huckleberry crop was good but the Sitka-mountain ash crop was less. The large male bear always relied on the large clusters of bright red berries to sustain him through October.

In late October he felt satisfied with his weight and could feel the increased effort it took to travel the steep mountain terrain during the first heavy snowfalls. He directed his efforts toward his winter lair. He had found the den’s site first while scent-trailing a female in mid-June and had passed through the area several times during fall berry feeding. Other bear scents lingered but his age and size always seemed dominant through that stretch of ridgeline. From here he would descend directly down slope into the valley bottom and water sources during spring thaw. From time to time a female bear scent drifted along the ridge. This was a mature scent – a known scent – possibly an old mate.

In the unseasonable warm afternoon the daybed seemed to satisfy his needs for now. He had moved from the makeshift bed outside the den to this more comfortable and secure daybed. Despite the warm spell, he sensed coming snow and decided to hold off from entering his den.

The large male’s eyes opened and he raised his massive head. His ears were small and widely spaced over his prominent saggittal crest. He slowly arched his head; mouth opening and nostrils squeezed, sucking in the news of the day – nothing much, only the lingering scent of the female bear. He shook tiny snowballs from his neck guard hairs and tried to shift his hind legs. Exhausted he abandoned the urge and lowered his head into the early winter realm, thinking of snow and the security of his winter lair.

In approximately 160 days, he would have to start his year all over again.

The above thoughts and interpretations are from field observations of a known study bear in Garibaldi Provincial Park and Whistler-Blackcomb ski area.


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