A look at three females and one very dominant male and their response to the end of berry season
Some 4 kilometres from where she had fed through Whistler Mountain north-slope, sugar-rich berry habitats since late July, the robust, chocolate brown-phase female black bear now settles for grazing blankets of regenerated clover.
Avoiding the knee-high, cellulose-laden grasses resident adult female Jeanie ducks her head into the new growth where overlapping canines and incisors clip and thrust leaflets onto her tongue. Its an unusually warm, early October evening and the seven people with me stare in amazement. "Why doesnt she look up at us?" is the question most frequently asked.
The high toleration of many resident females stems from the urgency with which they require their food. And based on their positive experiences with life in the resorts altered and enhanced environs, Jeanie (and other bears) has learned to tolerate people at closer distances so that she may benefit from the consumption of high quality food sources.
After all, she is pregnant and during the hyperphagia period of intense berry feeding (mid-August to mid-October) the fertilized eggs are riding the waves of delayed implantation anticipating hormonal signals that she has gained the necessary weight in order to resume fetal development during early December.
Her past post-berry activities have led her to the valley after a week or so of mid-mountain grazing. The valley offers scattered berries and the unfortunate opportunity to consume carbohydrate-rich human foods. Hoping that Im wrong and that late October snowfall forces her into a maternal den, but just in case Im not, shes big (175-kg) and dark brown with a large cream coloured V on her chest. Jeanie is one of the most human-habituated bears in Whistler but also very intelligent and forgiving. She is not tame. Give her respect and distance and shell do the same.
Moving in rhythm with the shrinking shadows of the late afternoon a much smaller (than Jeanie ) black mass with a lone brown cub skirts the edge of a north-slope ski trail on Whistler Mountain. Careful not to remain too long in open areas where vulnerability has taught her fatal consequences, resident adult female Katie always moves and feeds with hesitation. Having lost her son in late July to the aggression of a domineering adult male black bear she is always on guard.
She and her daughter too, revert to grazing the new fall growth of grasses and clover. I can almost bet my life on a bear like Katie never venturing into the valley in search of human food. She will take her daughter to the limits of the lower mountain bike park but will not penetrate the human perimeter.
She will continue to graze ski trails and search for scattered, shrivelled berries but unlike her more dominant neighbour (Jeanie) will not look for human food, accepting the consequences of reduced weight gain and overall lower fitness.
Katie is the only mother black bear I have studied in 17 years to rear her litter for 2.5 years rather than the normal 1.5 years. She kept her two, 1997 cubs until July 1999.
The largest adult female black bear I study stands on the side of Brandywine Forest Service Road. Her thick shaggy coat is covered in dust. Three fat cubs rattle the life out of a mountain ash shrub 5 metres away. Her near 200-kg frame slumps in the unusual October heat. Aggressive pants attempt to cool her body.
Sadie is resident to the Cheakamus River/Whistler Interpretive Forest environs. She is the first adult female identified in 1994 when I started research and now is the oldest mother monitored. I have followed her through six litters of 13 cubs.
Mountain bikers often sight Sadie and her two black and 1 brown cubs as they travel through traditional bear activity corridors that are now mountain bike trails (Trash and Train Wreck). Her response to dwindling berry days is to put more pressure on the Whistler landfill. I have never observed Sadie north of Function Junction. She usually dens on the east slope of Sproatt Mountain, leaving the Cheakamus Valley during mid-November.
When you first see Slim you know hes a large bear. Hes likely around 225 kg, maybe more. Slim has dominance stamped all over him. His robust, yet lanky body (which earned him his name) appears to resemble a small horse. He is the most wide-ranging bear that I have monitored in Whistler.
After July, when mating is over, he can be spotted in locations 10-12 km apart during short periods of time (1-3 days). I have located him in the backyards of Spruce Grove to the west slope of Whistler Mountain. Surprising enough, the only place I havent seen Slim is the Whistler dump.
Even he has his limitations. His dominance carries only so far. His reaction to the dwindling food supply appears slight he ranges widely through the landscape of productive Whistler bear habitat so the measure of his response is difficult. He is constantly moving, feeding, and challenging his competition.
Despite the difficulty in identifying certain bears, Slim has a distinction that is easily seen. Around his right eye is a circular area of hair loss, possibly from a severe mite infection. Neither I nor Conservation Officer Chris Doyle have ever seen this on a bear before. It is different than the facial hair-loss bears go through during den emergence (March-May).
If anyone sights Slim please call me 604-902-1660. I want to try to monitor the condition of his eye. Please do not approach him or any other bears. Slim was last observed at Olympic Station on Whistler Mountain on Oct. 5.
All bears in Whistler appear to be fat and in good health for hibernation. Unfortunately, bears are almost never satisfied with their weight gain, with instinct driving them to secure food sources. Mild weather just makes this easier.
From Sept. 18 to Oct. 24, the 60+ barbed-wired hair traps throughout the RMOW will again be baited once a week for the collection of bear hair.
The summer session generated about 150 samples of hair. I anticipate more hair during the fall session due to the decrease in berry abundance and typical increase in valley bear activity.
These sites are totally safe for bears and curious dogs, although if you do encounter the signs please leash your dog and avoid the area.
Hair-trapping is underway to collect bear hair for DNA analyses to determine a minimum number of black bears in Whistler. Equally important is to continue the hair-trapping for the next three years to ascertain a trend in bear numbers is the number of bears this year high or low?
Research is supported by Whistler-Blackcomb, Resort Municipality of Whistler, Simon Fraser University, and Whistler Bear Working Group. Hair traps are to be dismantled by Nov. 15.
Bear Sighting Reports
If you encounter a bear up close (< 20-metres) and you can see their face, speak calmly and loud enough that the bear will hear you and turn slightly to move away. Turning your body eliminates the threatening posture of facing a bear.
If a bear approaches act big, noisy, and threatening remain facing the bear and stand your ground.
To help with the monitoring of valley bear activity and input to conservation data you may report bear family sightings including very small (dog-size) and very large-size black bears. Thanks to everyone for their information and photos.
Questions, information, or bear sighting reports please call Michael Allen at 604-902-1660 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . Thanks to Pique Newsmagazine for sponsoring this bear update.