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Bear Update: Valley's grazing bears

Bear activity about to increase



By Michael Allen

Whistler Black Bear Project

May sets the pace for the start of the bear season as most bears have emerged from winter dens.

You can always tell a bear that has just emerged within the last two weeks because a ring of missing hair will be worn around the bear’s eyes and a stripe down the bridge of the nose. Hair loss is from mite and tick irritation during winter while bears retaliate by scratching, rubbing, and by mothers licking the cub’s face clean.

The last bears to emerge now are mothers with newborn cubs (born January-early February). The forecast this spring is for 13-26 cubs, if 13 pregnant females last fall each gave birth to 1-2 cubs this winter.

Mom’s wait to emerge for a few months so that cubs are large enough (9-16 lbs.) and mobile enough to escape threats by climbing trees.

Mother’s also need access to sufficient food to begin replenishing their milk supply. Winter snow pack and rate of spring thaw dictates where bears can feed in May. Early spring has been cooler than normal and green-up is limited but becoming quite concentrated in the valley bottom. Virtually anywhere that has lush, new green growth is potential bear food. The reason fort   that is that bears lack the complex stomach of a deer, to digest cellulose, the major building block of plant cell walls. The more mature a plant is the more cellulose. Therefore, bears need to consume plants in their earliest stages of growth to get the most digestible energy.

Bear food plants in May are skunk cabbage, pussy willows, grass, clover, horsetail, dandelion flowers, sedge, weeds, and huckleberry flowers. SADIE, the oldest mother bear I study, consumes vast amounts of the weed Lamb’s quarters.

As May progresses and snow melts, bears follow the progression of green-up back up mountains and drainages. However, because green-up is now taking place close to people, there is more potential disturbance to bears.

Bears will graze any green-up and common areas are lower ski slopes, golf courses, playgrounds/fields, residential roadsides/ditches, valley trails, and riparian areas (water active). Grazing green-up usually lures bears into openings, making them easier to see than any other time of year. That works to our advantage when encountering bears, but also increases exposure to bears and disturbance.

We need to accept that bears will be seen grazing very close to roads, trails, parks, and back yards. They are not endangering anyone and in the last 13 years I have not seen a problem originating from grazing activity in valley green-up areas.

Because bears begin their year in close proximity to people we need to make a good, healthy, first impression. You guessed it: no human food, garbage, or recycling should be left outside. That means on the deck, in the driveway, or in the backyard. And bird feeders should not be used. To ensure a healthy year for bears, and us, means to consistently keep human foods away from bears . If you maintain a clean outdoor area you are teaching bears that our home/yard is free of anything unnatural.

The bottom line: we do not want to lure bears from grazing in the valley to eating human foods in the valley. As Whistler has been developed with obvious green space in mind that space will always contain vegetation that attracts bears.

Remember, bears die in Whistler for one reason — us.

Over the next few weeks flowers of huckleberry and blueberry, the key summer-fall berry for bears, will open, signaling the pollination process and the cycle of the bee, the berry, and the bear cub. A presentation on the behavior of Whistler black bears, sponsored by Whistler Museum and Archives, will be presented at MY Place on May 20.

Bear Update is made possible by Pique Newsmagazine. Michael Allen has been studying the behavior and ecology of black bears close to people in B.C. for 20 years.