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Bear Update: First moms out



The oldest mother black bear in the Whistler ski area pushes her forepaws up through dense forest litter and across the rim of the deep daybed. Her chest cavity slumps into the daybed's 40-cm deep depression as the sigh of physical relief momentarily empties her stress-ridden body. Her son squirms up against her, wedging his 20-kg body between mom and a towering escape cover of old growth Douglas fir.

Despite the cold afternoon, a large mosquito dances over her snout, teasing the surface before landing. Her large wet black rostrum wrinkles forcing the entomological pestilence to land elsewhere. She looks into the grey sky. This majestic mother, named Marisa, slowly tilts her head back. Her body shudders again. Heavy eyelids diminish the flat light of the afternoon as she surrenders her post-winter lethargic state to the forest gods. Does she dream - of winter past or future summer?

Living at least 21 years on Blackcomb Mountain since she was identified as a young adult in 1994, think of the change she has experienced. On a grand scale her job was and is to be a mom in a rapidly changing environment, the latter out of her control. If only she could speak our language - but she doesn't have to. Raising six litters of nine cubs total from 1994 to 2010, Marisa has been the longest monitored adult female in the WB ski area. She has remained resident to Blackcomb, with only a few side trips in the fall to the great concentration of berries at Greenacres on Whistler. She does communicate, through 17 years of observation, revealing an incredible journey of change, defeat, adaptation and survival. She has held her own, despite berry crop loss, harsh weather and injury. She has managed to maintain a natural foraging strategy.

It is April 14 and she is the first mother with one yearling observed out of the den.

Three kilometres away, across Fitzsimmons Creek on Whistler Mountain, Katie, an 18-year-old resident, pokes her head out from a ground den beneath the root mass of a windfall. Within seconds she disappears inside the den.

In the late afternoon that day the temperature soars to 16 degrees C. At 16:07 she emerges to sniff around and rub against hemlock saplings, returning to the den 15 minutes later. At 18:42 hours she emerges again, takes a few steps from the den's entrance, turns to face the den and defecates. Her scat consists of a fecal plug and consumed birthing material. She turns, sniffs it and disappears back inside the den.

Five metres away a remote camera silently records this seldom seen behavior. It is 8 degrees C.

The next day at 17:17 hours she emerges directly to sniff the pile of her own scat. A small black soccer ball-size cub appears at the rim of the entrance. It is 6 degrees C as the camera records the cub's first emergence. Ten minutes later, a second cub, brown in color, appears at the rim then begins climbing the exposed root-mass of the den's ceiling. The bear family left the den early the next morning.

This is Katie's sixth litter for a total of 13 cubs identified since 1995. She will descend slowly to snowline to forage pussy willows and graze new green-up.

The ski area is home to 16 resident adult females plus three outlying neighbouring females from Garibaldi Provincial Park that arrive in the fall to forage berries. Another six adult females occupy the west side of Whistler Valley. They have never been observed in the ski area.

For the ski area this spring, six females will emerge with yearlings (Marisa+1, Bella+2, Amy+2, Olivia+2, Alice 2+2 and Lucy+2). Ten females bred last spring (Jeanie bred in August-September) and were due to produce cubs during the Olympic winter (Katie, Jeanie, Alice, Daisy, Zoe, Rosie, Elly, Brownie, Michelle and Daisy 2).

Alice 2 and Daisy 2 need to be named by the school kids this spring (my official method for bear ID nomenclature).

And with the good berry crop last fall, those 11 females could be producing one-two and possibly three-cub litters, to a total of 20+ cubs for the 2010 population.

With drops below normal temperatures this spring and heavy snowpack, we could suffer some berry crop delays in ripening and/or loss this summer. For early May, the bloom stage of valley Vaccinium (Huckleberries and blue berries) is behind, but warm, sunny weather is coming which could catch-up phenology.

Daily surveys of bear activity for photo-identification are being carried out in the WB ski area, golf courses, Callaghan Valley, Whistler Interpretive Forest and Highway 99 between Alice Lake and Whistler. So far 26 bears have been identified.

Sightings and questions can be sent to Thanks for everyone's input.



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