The coyote arrives first. Tall, sleek, with silver grey flanks and black-tipped tail, he stands in the depression sniffing the ground. Tail taught. Nose against the matted woody forest floor he inhales twice.
After 57 seconds he paws at the matted duff layer — something heavy lay there. Pressing his nose firmly against the detritus, he sniffs twice and exhales. He steps out of the depression and runs his nose around the edge and at the base of surrounding trees.
He hesitates, cocks his head, and stares at a small box about 50 centimetres off the ground on a small tree two metres in front of him. He takes two steps forward, leans his snout within a few inches of the box. Then slowly turns away.
It was 9:33 p.m. on May 25. Two hours and 10 minutes later, two, 15-pound, 4.5-month-old black bear cubs somersault into the depression. Lashing out and clamping onto each other as they tumble against the wood debris. Abruptly they break apart, stopping their play to frantically sniff the ground at their feet — chuffing and squealing in excitement.
Eight minutes later they startle, jumping back to the edge of the depression and clinging to the base of the trees, as a large bear steps over a log and into the depression. Mother bear stands in the centre of the depression panting heavily, flaring nostrils, her snout swaying side to side. She paws at the forest floor vigorously almost as if the coyote's presence has contaminated the site.
After 60 seconds or so, she scrapes down six inches and plunks her large rump into the centre facing the forest opening. The cubs roll into the now deeper depression falling on top of one another triggering another round of wrestling. Mother bear pays no attention.
At 11:16 p.m. her head raises scenting for potential threats, an instinctive recurring action of daily motherhood. With a final release, body muscles begin to surrender to 11 hours of foraging and constant taught alertness.
She slumps half in, half out of the depression — directly facing the little box on the tree. She displays no recognition, nor interest in this little green box. Her hazel brown eyes fight to stay open. The cubs are still wrestling but, at 11:20 p.m. they tire, climbing onto mother and collapse between her fore and hind legs turning their small heads inward toward their own hind legs. All is still.
The bear family slumbers only three metres from the forest edge and 24 metres from the nearest bike trail in the Whistler Mountain Bike Park. It is 12 degrees C. The little green box is silent, but inside an arc of infrared sensory is "capturing" the slighted movements of rising-falling chests with 10 rapid-fire images. Mother respires every 20 seconds, cubs every three seconds. This union of large mass-small mass metabolism resembles a dirty pillow squished between three trees in a dense second growth forest. After seven hours, the remote camera will have taken over 3,000 usable images of nocturnal bear family behaviour at the daybed... activities nearly impossible for me to witness.
This mother, Echo, with her two cubs is one of six bear families totalling 13 cubs-of-the-years, in the Whistler Blackcomb ski area. I have not seen any females with new cubs in the valley. There are five generations of "E" females on Whistler Mountain – Elly (16.5 years), Echo (9.5 years), Evie (2.5 years), and two new female cubs from each of the older mothers.
As of June 15, the bear count (always a minimum number) is at 67 different black bears — 14 adult males, 18 adult females, 22 sub-adults (one-to-three years old), and 13 cubs-of-the-year. All nine mothers with yearlings (2014 cubs) in the ski area have mostly separated and courtship has begun with those females now attracting males through mid-July.
The big concern this year will be the increasingly inevitable potential for a poor berry crop resulting from low snowpack, and subsequent drought conditions on mountain slopes.
If we don't experience significant periods of rainfall by early July, there could be a significant crash in most of the fall berry crop. Berry ripening will be too early, leading to berries shrivelling faster and berry size remaining small. There are also areas of widespread post-bloom damage — so no berries at all.
While "climate-berry-weight gain-bear survival" relationships are natural regulators of the population, it seems inevitable that a new "group" of tagged bears will appear over the next few years only to be subsequently destroyed.
We could see high bear activity in the valley this late summer and fall, especially young bears under and just over four years of age.