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Bear Update: Berry days of summef

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Bear Researcher

It’s a hot, by my standards, 34 degree Celsius afternoon. Quite possibly the large male black bear which lies slumped across a tinder-dry log 11-metres away may not be totally enjoying this seasonally sunny summer day either. Black flies and small mosquitoes hover in a dance of heat worship around our bodies. I wonder who is more attractive for feasting.

It’s 14:30 hours. We are positioned within a selectively thinned ski trail glade on Blackcomb Mountain. For the past four hours this resident bear, aptly named Slumber (because of his passive demeanor) by a Grade 5 field trip class from Myrtle Phillip Community School last spring, has been foraging the ripening thickets of Vaccinium (huckleberry and blueberry) berries enhanced by gladed ski trail development. The look and smell of the forest reminds me of my forest fire-fighting summers back in the Arrow District of the West Kootenays.

Despite the invasion of insects through a blanket of smothering heat, Slumber continues to fulfill his basic biological requirement to prepare for winter hibernation – get fat. He and other bears in the ski area have approximately 90 days to consume as many sugar-rich berries as possible to increase fat deposits for the support of altered metabolic pathways during the four-seven month winter.

I wipe the sweat from my forehead and pull out a new bear activity budget field sheet. After a certain amount of time in the field I begin to "feel" like a bear, or at least experience a fragment of what they experience. If I had to do this for another three or four hours – well I have in the past followed bears for days – I would begin the transformation (as I like to call it). No, I’m not changing into the Wolf-man.

Every scientist, I think, should experience their subject this way – it’s the only sure way to understand, or come close to really understanding and appreciating how a bear adapts to overcome hardships and unexpected, dynamic changes in its environment. Bears must eat. Berry life is ticking away. Their god and nemesis, rise high in the sky – the ability to give and the ability to take away. The sun and rain are equal partners in the creation of good huckleberry crops. Too much of either and berries diminish.

The massive, black body heaves in the shade of a stunted mountain hemlock. The sparse umbrella does what it can to intercept the invasion of solar power into the bears hide. White foam accumulates around the sides of Slumber’s jowls. A constant drool drips into the duff layer. Without indication, he sways his head up almost as if to point the direction of the next feeding bout. Massive 12-cm wide forepaws push the 260-pound body off the log. His 1-metre high shoulders thrust into an equal-height huckleberry shrub. Head plows into the thicket but, with no damage to the matrix of elliptical foliage he targets the berries. Large 9-mm purplish-black Vaccinium membranceum disappear into loose, flappy lips.

Berry Season

Mid-August triggers hyperphagia , the first physiological stage of hibernation. Hormonal triggers push bears to feed in excess of 15 hours each day on ripening berries. Bears can be active anytime regardless of weather conditions and closeness to people.

Berry phenology is on schedule with the 10 key berry species ripe and ripening for feeding through September. Many berries grow within residential and valley park/trail areas so be aware of close bear activity anytime.

In addition to the single, red, blue, and purplish-black Vaccinium berries there are the orange cluster of Sitka-mountain ash berries, red high-bush cranberry, purple Saskatoon berries, and white red-osier dogwood berries.

Many berries are also used by landscapers (dogwood, mountain ash, and Saskatoon). Be aware that bears may feed on berries close to houses.

If you encounter a bear up close (< 20-meters) speak calmly in a regular voice and move away slowly. Turn slightly to eliminate the threatening posture of facing a bear. If a bear approaches act big, noisy, and threatening – remain facing the bear and stand your ground.

For information, or bear sighting reports please call Michael Allen at 604-902-1660 or e-mail mallen_coastbear@direct.ca . Thanks to Pique Newsmagazine for sponsoring this update.

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