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bear column

By Michael Allen Black Bear Researcher The spring black bear season in May got off to a cold and cloudy start as mountainside green-up of favourite bear foods was about two weeks late. In the last week of May, however, ski runs on both Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains were getting lush for bear and deer grazing to about the 1,000 metre elevation, or Olympic Station on Whistler. The increased bear activity on the ski hills might alleviate some of the bear activity in the valley around the golf course grazing areas. If you are hiking either mountain be sure to be on the lookout for grazing bears. It’s very easy to stumble upon them because their heads are down while feeding and mountain winds can change suddenly, hiding or revealing your scent to the bear at the wrong time. If the wind is blowing towards you the bear can’t smell you. When the wind blows from you toward the bear he can detect you right away. When there are only slight breezes assume the bear can detect you. You can often see the bear raise his head and open and close his mouth while sniffing. He is routinely sensing the area. If he suddenly jumps into the bush then he has sensed you. If you see a bear don’t try to approach because you will interrupt their grazing and eventually cause the bear to leave that specific site, where feeding was obviously good. Bears don’t gain much weight until the berry crop ripens in late June or July and they need to feed or graze on lush green vegetation like grasses, sedges and clover for hours just to maintain their energy levels. It’s a good idea to bring binoculars or a spotting scope so you can enjoy a close-up view from a safe distance. Look for bears in the early mornings and evenings along the edges of ski runs and tree islands. The exceptional berry crop of 1995 has helped produce at least five healthy mother bears and their 10 new-born cubs I am monitoring this spring. Two of the five mothers (sows) have three new-born cubs each (COY: cubs of the year), one mother has two cubs and the remaining two mothers have one cub each. Cub litters range in size between one and four, with an average of two over a four-year period (1993-1996) in Whistler. The larger the litter, the smaller the cubs. The bond between sows and their cubs is very strong. The mother’s experience with people and previous litters will determine how she reacts to intruders, whether it’s a person or another bear. Another bear is very rarely tolerated and will be chased and attacked by the mother if it continues to invade her area. I have observed mothers chasing adult male bears twice their size and attacking them fiercely. This spring a mother chased another bear almost 700 metres through a cutblock while her cubs escaped to a tree. You should always be on the lookout for cubs if you run into a medium-large size bear. Many times you can’t see the cubs but you can hear their claws raking against the bark as they climb or come down out of a tree. Cubs’ only self defence is climbing and they will climb virtually anything standing erect to get out of danger. The best escape trees for cubs are western hemlock, fir and cottonwood trees because of the coarse and rigid bark. Throughout the valley, you can see old and new claw marks from cubs climbing up cottonwood trees, especially near wetlands and along the golf courses. If you bump into a family just back away, talking in a mild voice. Never get between cubs and a mother and never try to approach a seemingly abandoned cub. Cubs whine, hiss and cough when they are frightened and bawl as a human baby does when threatened — the mother reacts immediately. Cubs hum or squeal when playing. The spring season will last a little longer than usual this year because of the lack of sunshine in May. Berry crops will be at least two weeks late so if you see bears grazing in the valley just remember they’re trying to make it to the summer berry season in July. With the warmer weather bears spend hours tearing apart logs and stumps and flipping over rocks in search of ants and beetles. Wasps and their honeycomb are consumed from their nests. If anyone has any questions about Whistler’s black bears or the columns, give me a call at 905-0093. Michael Allen can be heard on Mountain FM’s Mountain Monitor program the fourth Tuesday of each month. Listen June 25 at noon.