Bears head into breeding season 

Cold start to season threatens fall berry crop and bears' opportunity to fatten up for hibernation

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MICHAEL ALLEN - CARRYING ON Right-side body of Split, an almost 10-year-old male with a torn right ear and damaged left eye from a fight he had with larger male in 2016.
  • PHOTO by Michael Allen
  • CARRYING ON Right-side body of Split, an almost 10-year-old male with a torn right ear and damaged left eye from a fight he had with larger male in 2016.

As of this week, the Whistler bear count stands at 55 black bears with seven already lost from the population this year.

There have been two adults killed due to conflicts with people and garbage, four cubs lost to male bear aggression and one adult male killed in a Highway 99 vehicle collision.

Of the 55 bears, 37 are adults (20 male and 17 female), nine are sub-adults (two to three years old) and nine are cubs-of-the-year (COY).

Eight cubs were counted in the ski area and one in the valley. The mortality rate for cubs is 50 per cent so far.

Resident mothers produced three cubs (Elly), two cubs (Dixie) and one cub (Olivia).

As a result of losing her cub, Olivia has been forced back into the breeding cycle, which continues for bears through late June and usually winds down by mid-July depending on the onset of berry ripening.

Bears continue to follow the progression of green-up to mid-mountain elevations grazing dandelions, clover, sedge, and horsetail.

Of the three mothers (Louise, Brownie, Chanel) in the ski area that emerged with one yearling each, all have separated except for Louise, who may still have her golden-phase yearling, which captured so much attention as a cub last year.

As frequency of male bear encounters increase, mothers force family break-up. Yearlings are small, but usually safer away from their mothers as breeding period approaches.

Pelage (coat colour) ratio is 41 black and 13 brown. Coat colour genetics in black bears is similar to that of domestic Labrador retriever dogs. Thus, black bear colouration ranges from black to varied shades of brown (blonde to yellow or golden). 

Brown-coloured black bears are referred to as "brown-phase" black bears not brown bears. Brown-phase black bears may be dark brown in spring thanks to their winter coat, lighter in summer — after shedding the under-fur — and darker again in fall with their winter coat.

True white black bears are Kermode or "Spirit" bears and we do not have any in Whistler. 

A true brown bear is a grizzly bear, which is different physically from black bears in three major ways: larger size (longer and taller), shape (muscled shoulder hump and broader/longer skull-rostrum), and broader, angled, longer fore-claws (for digging).

Grizzlies are not typically seen in Whistler, but they can be encountered in the backcountry in the upper Callaghan/Roe/Brandywine Valley, Pemberton meadows, and the entire length of Squamish River.

Insect foraging has been increasing, as stumps and rotten logs are torn apart for carpenter ants/larva and small subterranean bee/wasp nests.

Insects, specifically colonial hymenopterans like ants, bees and wasps, are Whistler bears' only animal protein — bears are not active predators only opportunistic scavengers in Whistler, but they certainly can be in other areas. 

When significant berries become available in August, bears will focus their energy on foraging 15-plus hours a day to initiate weight gain for winter.

Catkins (pussy willows), skunk cabbage, grasses, horsetail, clover, and dandelions are the prime spring foods. 

Many of these plants offer pro-digestive, blood-thinning, pain-killing, and anti-inflammatory properties for bears and must be consumed by bears (for easier digestion) during young growing stages.

Expect scattered and abundantly low berries ripening in valley over next one to two weeks. Through July, and likely into August, bears will be foraging all three groups of their seasonal diet: plants, insects, and ripening berries.

Mid-mountain (1,200 metres) berry flowers are being pollinated now with ripening possibly set for mid-August depending on weather.

The hot weather helps, but not if it continues for too long. The high elevation (1,500-plus m) berry crop is likely to be very late and of low production. 

With bears foraging close to people areas, be aware of bear scat (droppings) in lush areas indicating active bears.

Especially when it's hot, be cautious along trails through wetlands, as bears need to drink daily, wallow and swim to cool off.

Keep dogs on leash. Dog-walkers can potentially create the most dangerous type of encounters. Bears have an inherent fear of the socially advantageous Canis (dogs, coyotes, wolves), which in the eyes of a bear threaten their solitary existence. Dogs off leash will aggravate bears and could be especially threatening to a mother with cubs.

I have seen so many people standing with their dogs off leash and on leash watching a bear under 20 metres away. That's too stressful on a bear — just get control of your dog, talk quietly and go. 

Even though black bears living near people may become highly habituated, habituation is not constant.

Bears tolerate close human activity because they usually want access to a good food source.

It's got nothing to do with you personally, so don't think the bear "likes" you or is "friendly." 

When you push the limit of their tolerance, which you cannot predict, the bear can become threatened and the encounter could escalate into a possible physical conflict.

Michael currently has a network of remote cameras in the backcountry of Squamish and the frontcountry of Whistler to "capture" comparisons in black-bear feeding, ecology and cub survival.

He keeps track of bear family groups over the entire corridor, so if you want you can report those at mablackbearstudies@gmail.com.  

Michael's work is self-funded and unofficial. He is grateful to all the schools (Parent Advisory Councils), teachers, students, and Scenic Tours Vancouver/Australia for supporting his lectures.

You can find his black bear updates at www.piquenewsmagazine.com.

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