News » Bear Update

Bear Update: 15th year of research



The year 2008 marks my 15th year of observations into black bear behaviour and abundance in Whistler. Research began in 1994 with the goal of determining the dynamics of the visiting bear population at the Whistler Municipal Landfill and surrounding Interpretive Forest (which is now the Olympic Village under construction). From 1994 to 1999, I observed and photographed bears daily at the landfill, recording their time of arrival, activity, social interactions, time of departure, and distance traveled to perimeter bedding areas. I’m happy to see that the landfill is finally closed, but those years were truly a theater of behavioral diversity. Matching seasonal increases in bear visitation with increasing food supply (garbage from Whistler’s construction boom), allowed daily counts of up to 44 different bears. I had over 500 bear daybeds (temporary sites where bears sleep and rest during the active year) surveyed and would check daybed occupancy a few times each week. One morning in early June 1994, I counted 17 different bears (without disturbance to any) resting/sleeping at their daybeds.

Some days, especially after an August afternoon of 30+ Celsius, I used to question my purpose, sitting in this dusty, stinky garbage site. I’m proud I stuck it out because having this database is invaluable in determining the “evolution” of the current bear population. The development of bear personalities over 27 years (1979-2006) of trying to access garbage and feeding on garbage provides the roots of behaviour that reveal many patterns of today’s bear strategies to search for and consume edible human garbage. Of the 10 mother bears identified using the landfill area in the 1990s, only two are left — Heidi and Sadie. This spring I will confirm survival and the possibility that Sadie, who was the first mother identified in 1992, might have been destroyed in 2007 entering a restaurant in Function Junction.

In 2000, I reduced daily observations to weekly at the landfill so I could focus on the ski area bear viewing program and counting bears at golf courses. Whistler’s unique bear population of higher density and tolerant behaviours (of people and other bears) comes from recreation. The history of recreational development — primarily ski trails and golf courses — has increased food supply, which allows the bear population to reach 120 animals in some years (following bumper berry crops). The three golf courses each spring can attract (for two months) up to 25 bears, and the Whistler-Blackcomb ski areas supports from 30 to 50 bears with 75 per cent of resident mothers in the resort living in the ski area. Golf courses support mostly males and the ski area mostly females.

The root, so to speak, to this higher bear abundance stems from high availability of green-up and spikes in berry crops. New, easily digested (low in cellulose) green vegetation (grass, clover, dandelions, and horsetail) provides a staple food supply for at least two months in spring and one month in fall, allowing bears a nutritional boost at the start of the year.

Historic logging, burns and some ski trail development, followed by high density berry feeding which increases seed dispersal through scat, has all boosted berry supply in the resort. As bears feed in these enhanced recreation-based habitats, they become accustomed or habituated to open spaces, especially open spaces with high food rewards (clover, dandelions, and berries) and minimal physical threats, all in close proximity to human activity.

Now in my ninth year as a bear-viewing guide, I focus my observations in the ski area and golf courses with an emphasis on adult female ecology. Females are the producers and originate “behavioral flow” through a population by passing aspects of their personality and experiences onto offspring. All mothers have an “adaptive shape” to their personality that they use to overcome changes in Whistler’s environment.

As of October 2007, our 15 resident mother bears in the ski area survived with 11 cubs (born Jan.-Feb. 2007) and 13 yearlings (2006 cubs). Two mothers lost four cubs in the ski area and two mothers and their three cubs were both lost in the valley.

Continued bear outreach in 2008 includes Pique Newsmagazine-sponsored Bear Update columns (14th year), RMOW-sponsored school classroom (12th year) and field programs (10th year), Whistler Museum display and public presentations (10th year), Whistler-Blackcomb ski area bear viewing (ninth year), Scenic Tour/Fairmont Chateau Australian visitor presentation series (third year), and Millennium Place special presentation and exhibit series (second year).

I’ll be showing an exhibit again at Millennium Place from mid-April through May on Mother Bears. In late May a special presentation sponsored by Whistler Blackcomb will be given on the unique life of Jeanie over the 13 years (1996-2008) she has been studied.

Bears have been out for the last month in Squamish and are waking slowly in Whistler. Be cautious on the highway to Vancouver as improvement areas are greening-up fast and will soon lure bears out to grazing. Don’t stop to watch — it’s extremely dangerous for bears and your safety. Be aware of garbage and bird feeders — leaving them out will kill bears.

Questions, please contact me at 604-698-6709 or