Every spring the melting snow-pack releases new green vegetation along an elevation gradient limiting the beginning of bear feeding closer to people, at valley and lower mountain slope elevations (625-750-metres). This valley perimeter of concentrated, easily digested green-up (grass, clover, dandelions, horsetail, pussy willows, and skunk cabbage) forces bear activity into a hierarchy of status, personality, and space use.
Larger males command the prime feeding areas at golf courses, playing fields, and large skunk cabbage swamps.
Younger bears follow (emergence) but, their lower status keeps them on guard against encounters with older, established bears, and thus they are limited to lower quality habitat and/or high risk (for the bear) habitat throughout residential corridors.
As females emerge with yearlings and then later with cubs of the year (born January), lone females and family units take over the higher quality grazing areas in the ski area.
Bears are active from 625 metres (valley) to 1,000 metres (snowline) which is normal for mid-May. Where you will see an impact (from cooler spring temperatures), is during mid-June when bears need to move higher (following new green-up) and green-up may still be one-to-two weeks behind (depending on weather). The delayed release in food will keep bears concentrated and tensions will already be high as the breeding season runs mid-May to mid-July. Males are just beginning to scent-trail available females in the ski area and surrounding slopes. Some males (depending on the individual and availability of single females) may attempt to kill cubs to force a female in anestrous (with cubs) into estrous (without cubs) as a result of losing her cubs. So females with COY (cubs-of- the-year) do emerge into a stressful environment.
So far, 47 different bears (20 M, 27 F) including cubs have been identified. Of the eight mothers that denned with 22 cubs, six have been re-sighted so far with 100 per cent survival of their yearlings. Of the eight expectant females, four have emerged with three, two-cub litters and a single cub litter.
I was happy to see that Brownie, a brown female I have known for more than seven years, produced one black cub after four years (2003-06) of observed breeding. You can sometimes see her on the Peak to Creek ski trail which she overlaps with Daisy, an older female with two brown yearlings. Seeing both families allows you to get a sense of the size difference between newborn cubs (9-15 lbs. @ 4 months) and yearlings (30-80 lbs. @ 17 months) relative to each other and their mothers.
Marisa, who is close to 20 years old, emerged on Blackcomb with two healthy yearlings and the popular Jeanie emerged with two brown newborn cubs on Whistler’s north side. Jeanie has now produced nine cubs (5 litters) in 10 years (1998-2007) vs. Marisa producing six cubs (4 litters) in the same 10 years.
A 14-year (1994-2007) trend reveals adult females in the ski area exhibiting high (90 per cent) overlap of spring feeding areas (for 3 months) allowing dominant females greater time in higher quality feeding sites. Overlap decreases in fall as bears are more competitive when foraging in berry patches and often need to expand their movements in search of ripening berries.
Activity by sub-adult/young adult males has been lower in the ski area and at golf courses, which may be explained by the removal of 10 bears last year (1 drowned) and two bears this spring. The separation of 22 yearlings (2006 cubs) this spring may increase garbage-seeking behaviors this fall, as sons are pushed out of maternal ranges (to avoid future inbreeding/aggressive behaviours toward sisters and moms) and the potentially late berry crop (from snow pack) could increase competitiveness between bears to secure berry patches and/or drive some bears with cubs, including Jeanie, to valley bottom this fall.
The ski area bear viewing program began May 15 for visitors and locals to increase their understanding of changing bear behavior and ecology in Whistler. Tours run three times a day (6 a.m., 1 p.m., and 6 p.m.) to sight and identify known and new bears in the ski area. For more information and reservations call Whistler-Blackcomb at 604-932-3434.
Please, keep garbage, recycling, and bird feeders away from bears. If you have questions about bears e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org