At least five male black bears are active in the Whistler valley. Despite the valley's mild winter, a higher than normal snowpack occurs above mid-mountain where the bulk of bears hibernate, delaying emergence of males one-two weeks. Deep snows will keep many female bears (because they emerge later) denning longer into May.
During the 1998-99 winter of record snowpack, an immature female denned on Nov. 2, 1998 and emerged 199 days later on May, 19, 1999.
The longest period of denning I've recorded was 216 days during the same year when Daisy, a resident mother on Whistler Mountain's west-slope (Creekside), denned beneath a large boulder in Whistler Bowl on Oct. 23 and emerged on May 26 without cubs. She had to tunnel up through 245 cm of snow.
The lowest (elevation) denned bears (female) this year (that I know of) at 900 and 1,100 metres elevation are still in their dens covered by at least 150 cm of snow.
Last weekend (April 18) two large males emerged from dens during the same day - one coming down the east slope of the Callaghan Valley and one descending the west slope below Black Tusk. Daytime maximum temperatures are reaching 8 degrees over a normal 12 degree C., which should speed up thaw and trigger more bears to emerge.
This year about 80 bears (including cubs) are expected to use the three valley golf courses and Whistler-Blackcomb ski area. These recreationally-modified landscapes yield higher than normal foods for bears because of the need to establish perennial grass, etc. for golfing and skiing. This new green growth attracts bears each spring, for the early stages of easily digested grass, horsetail, clover, dandelions, and sedge.
Bears are lured from the secure forest into a semi-open landscape where individual bears can be sighted, photographed and their identity established. Colour (black and brown), neck and chest markings, rostrum colouration, scars, injuries and body morphology all help to define a distinct fingerprint for that individual bear's identity.
Photo-identified bears become known bears where they can be re-sighted, recognized and counted each spring to help determine their status in the population.
Whistler's bear population fluctuates depending on cub (< 2 years) production, sub-adult (< 4 years) dispersal and survival, human influence (conflicts with garbage and development) and competition amongst bears. Climate, which regulates the vital fall berry crop, in turn, strongly influences bear numbers and survival. Adult females have the best survival followed by adult males. Sub-adults and cubs have the lowest.
In 2009, I identified a minimum of 73 different bears (36 M, 37 F) including cubs-of-the-year (COY) that used seasonal feeding areas within the ski area and golf courses.
Forty-seven per cent (nine of 19) of the total adult females produced 18 COY. From May to August, two mothers, Brownie (two COY) and Jeanie (three COY) lost their entire litters. Marisa lost one of two cubs in late June leaving a COY survival rate of 77 per cent. As a result, the two mothers that lost five cubs bred last spring (Jeanie bred early fall) as did the remaining 10 breeding females. That means there may be 12 females to emerge with 12-24 cubs during May 2010.
Cubs are born mid-Jan to early Feb during hibernation.
The remaining seven mothers should emerge this spring with 11 yearlings (2009 cubs).
In previous years I've always given bear count results for all of Whistler but the observation effort changes considerably each year because of difficulty in accessing other areas within the resort. The ski area and golf courses attract the most bears, which I believe provide a consistent window into bear population dynamics for Whistler.
When I started counting bears in 1994 at the Whistler Municipal Landfill, the minimum population for the resort was around 150 bears. Since the landfill was closed in 2006, the population took a healthy decrease to 100-120 bears.
Over the next few Bear Updates, I will breakdown the workings of the bear population as bears prepare for the breeding period (late May-late July).
If anyone has questions about bear numbers or behavior they can reach me at 604-698-6709. Thanks to everyone last year that shared their bear sightings.