Fat, sleepy and ready for snow 

Black bears move towards dens, others forage for last minute food

Whistler’s bears are getting sleepy.

This week black bear researcher Michael Allen sat 14 metres away from Katie and her chunky brown cub Kit Kat, snoozing away on Whistler Mountain in the middle of the afternoon. Hard to imagine that it was only one month ago that the bears barely took time for a breath, so intent were they on eating.

"That’s why I do bear research," said Allen, who just watched the mom and her cub for hours on Monday.

"It was just a magical moment."

Katie and Kit Kat, who was named by Allen’s 7-year-old daughter, are like a lot of the area bears right now. Fattened up after a summer stuffing their faces with this year’s bountiful berry crop, the bears are now preparing for their long winter sleep ahead. They are tired and lethargic. Some are making last-ditch attempts to find food, even though their natural food supply has dwindled away to practically nothing.

It’s an annual pattern that Allen has been studying for the past decade.

In September the bears shop around for their winter dens. In October they prepare their dens, either building one from scratch or renovating a fixer-upper. This month they will enter their dens as soon as they snow starts falling.

"I’ve yet to see a bear re-use the same den he used the previous winter," said Allen, who knows the whereabouts of close to 200 bear dens in the area.

Many bears are now starting to make their way to their den areas, which could be as far as 20 kilometres away, tucked deep in the bush far from noise and disruption. Most dens are cozy tree cavities that have been hollowed out but some bears will spend the winter in the high alpine above the treeline. There they will find boulder dens, which are hidden dug outs among the rocks.

Many a bear will be tucked under the snow, fast asleep, oblivious to the yelps and cheers of skiers and snowboarders as they slide on the snow overhead.

Until the first snowfall the bears may work on their dens and take naps in nearby pre-denning day beds but they won’t settle down for the winter until the snow comes.

"The only thing that will drive them in is the snowfall," said Allen.

Even bitter cold weather won’t entice them in to their dens earlier. The temperature has nothing to do with it said Allen.

"This is bikini weather for a bear!" he joked.

If the snow doesn’t come, the bears will stay active digging up skunk cabbage roots or grazing on clover but they’re really just going through the motions until hibernation.

Of course, not all bears will follow this pattern. There are always variables like the availability of food that will change the behaviour of certain bears.

Some bears will be pushing the limits, scavenging for as much food as possible before it’s time for sleep.

Big dominant males like Slim, who have the ability to roam around wherever they like, will be on the lookout for food until the snow comes. Slim has been spotted hitting the bird feeders around Nordic recently.

Likewise immature bears in the valley that aren’t very dominant will also try to get more food. They haven’t been as successful as the other bears in their quest for food this summer and are now taking the last of the pickings.

Mothers with cubs will also stay out a little later. Most of their energies were focused on protecting their cubs this summer, rather than on the singular purpose of gorging on berries. Now they’ll use the fall weather to get as fat as they possibly can.

That’s why Allen is still working on his black bear hair traps, which will map out the DNA of Whistler’s bears through hair samples. Allen has strung small circles of barbed wire about half a metre off the ground throughout the area. Hanging high in the air in the middle of each circle is a burlap sack soaked in stinky fish fertilizer. The barbed wire snags hair from any bears that are sniffing around. Ultimately that hair will be analyzed in a lab, revealing the DNA of Whistler’s bears.

"(The traps are) getting hit hard everywhere," said Allen, explaining that there is less food and less distraction now so the bears will be more likely to explore the smell wafting from the fishy sacks.

"I expect the bears to hit the traps more now."

Allen will keep the traps going as late as he can so he can see which bears stay out the latest before going to their dens for the winter.

In the meantime if anybody has any bear sightings throughout November, call Michael Allen at 604-902-1660 or e-mail: mallen_coastbear@direct.ca

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