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BEAR UPDATE: Claire's Cubs



Black Bear Researcher

The odour of damp, rotten wood and the mustiness of a warm-blooded animal fill my nostrils. I can see nothing. I don’t dare shine the halogen light into the blackness of the tree cavity.

Instead, I attach a red filter minimizing the intruding illumination. Red light floods the sleeping chamber, revealing an oval-shaped dark mass. I adjust my footing should I have to exit quickly.

Despite the dormant state associated with hibernation, black bears can be alert in seconds to defend themselves. A broken branch is wedged behind my knee. My right hand grips a dangerously thin rhododendron stem uncovered from this winter’s scant snow pack. The sharp branch impales my knee, but prevents me from sliding down the 86 per cent slope and into the talus ravine below. I can feel the blood from the gash behind my knee trickle down my leg. I balance myself against the sharp branch by pulling harder on the shrub while straining to look deeper into the basal cavity of the old growth yellow cedar.

Claire , an adult female black bear resident to the north-east boundary of Garibaldi Provincial Park occupies this den. A teardrop-shaped opening above the den’s entrance allows me to squeeze my head through and look directly down into her lair. My face is less than 200 cm above her body.

I begin adjusting the strength of the light when I hear faint squeaks from beneath the dark mass. I douse the light and retreat from inside the cavity. I half stand and crouch outside the tree with my ear to the opening.

Squeaks again.

I slowly stick my head inside the opening again while at the same time introducing a small beam of light revealing the mother bear’s position. The squeaks, as far as I could see, belong to at least one black cub. Without disturbing the family a lot, I cannot discern the size of the litter.

Claire ’s den will be monitored through March and April, before the family emerges during May. Litter size will be confirmed either in the den or immediately after during emergence.

During the last six winters (1994-2000) the dates of newborn cub (or COY; cub-of-the-year) vocalizations have been recorded at 16 maternal dens of 10 known and six unknown female black bears in the Whistler Ecosystem. Cub vocalization and visual detection at dens have been recorded from Jan. 5 to March 18. Cubs observed suckling in dens during mid-February through mid-March appeared more active and visually larger than cubs observed in January.

Birth dates of black bear cubs throughout North America are predominantly in January, with occasional reports of later births in early February. Only on two occasions have I observed newborn cubs less than seven days (estimated) after birth. The reason being, at this stage in my research, I do not handle bears. So around maternal dens I give way to bear family security, remaining unobtrusive – which also explains the lack of photographic documentation of newborn bear cubs. Next winter, however, I will use a digital camera to record the size of newborn bear cubs.

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