Bear Update: Whistler's Mother Black Bears By Michael Allen Black Bear Researcher I stopped walking when I saw the tangle of freshly broken cottonwood branches. The grunt and gulping sounds of an adult bear erupted from behind the base of the tree. Experience told me a mother bear was talking to her cubs. Sounds of three small animals racing through the understory alerted my attention to the left. I knew what to listen for next — claws on bark. Bear cubs can climb trees in lightening speed. Three cubs leaped onto the trunk of a mature Douglas-fir and turned to stare down at the potential threat below. Like Velcro, the cubs clung to the cork-like ridges of bark while listening for further vocal instructions from their mother. Despite the fact that the mother bear was accustomed to my presence at close range she instinctively treed her cubs. I respected her actions and retreated to a less-threatening distance. With her cubs treed, she ignored me and resumed feeding on catkins from the array of broken cottonwood branches. Once cubs are treed, black bear mothers may react to disturbance in different ways. The most common reaction from disturbance by a human is that the mother will remain at the base of the cub's escape tree. Depending on the age of the mother and her experience with people she may charge or swat the ground several times to warn you not to approach. Mothers which have learned to tolerate human presence will leave once the cubs are safely treed and feed in the surrounding area. It is important to respect bear behaviour whether aggressive or wary in nature and never approach because bears are sensitive to distance and may become threatened at any time. Bumping into mother bears and their cubs has become a daily activity for me during the last five years of field research in Whistler. Many of the bear families become either habituated to me at close distances ( <10 metres) or tolerate my presence close enough to support identification. It is these families that I call the "focal sample" of which I closely observe and monitor as frequently each week as possible throughout their active year (May-October). Monitoring these distinct groups of families helps in determining the fitness of specific mothers in the population and factors which impact their annual activities. The following table lists focal black bear mothers and the numbers of cubs observed every year from 1994 through 1998. Some mothers have been monitored the entire study and some have just recently been identified for focal status. Black Bear Cub Production from 13 Focal Mothers in the Whistler Ecosystem Focal Mother 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 Total Territory/Activity Area Sadie 2 1 1 4 Lower Cheakamus R. Sarah 3 3 W. Interpretive Forest Susie 3* 3 6 W. Interpretive Forest Sandra 2 1 3 Lower Cheakamus R. Shanny 1 1 Upper Cheakamus R Terry 2* 2 W. Interpretive Forest Cassie 2 2 Whistler Mtn. Hazel 1 2 0 3 Whistler Mtn. Hanna 2 2 Whistler Mtn. Katie 2 2 Whistler Mtn. Jeanie 2 2 Whistler Mtn. Molly 2 1 3 Blackcomb Mtn. Marisa 1 1 2 Blackcomb Mtn. __ Total 35 * First litter Of the 13 mothers, Sadie and Hazel have been monitored the longest (1994-1998). Sadie is resident to the landfill and Hazel is a dominant resident on Whistler Mountain. Hazel broke apart from her 1996 cubs on July 1, 1997 and mated the following week, however, she did not produce cubs this winter as expected. The poor high elevation huckleberry crop in 1997 may have contributed to her insufficient weight gain. If mother bears do not reach a specific weight by denning the pregnancy will abort. Susie has produced the highest number of cubs in only three years (1996-1998). Access to high-caloric garbage and productive low-elevation berries has maintained her fitness. However, because Susie continues to teach her cubs to visit the landfill she is lessening their chances of survival. Sarah, Sandra, and Shanny are transient bears and less is known about their activities, although, efforts this year will be made to monitor these mothers in more detail. Terry is a mother for the first time this year and having been raised in the visiting population of the landfill has adopted a somewhat aggressive nature. Cassie and Katie are due to break away from their 1997 cubs in spring. Jeanie used Whistler Mountain daily during 1997 and has arrived in May 1998 with one black and one brown cub. Molly and Marisa continue to utilize Blackcomb's lush open ski trails producing only one cub apiece this year. Ski area mothers appear to have smaller litter sizes than valley or landfill mothers because in the ski area mothers are forced to graze until July when valley or landfill mothers have access to edible garbage and ripening berries in mid-late June. Anyone with questions regarding black bears or with information of a bear family observation (mother with cubs or yearlings) in the Whistler area can contact me at 938-3816. A big thanks to those that have already helped with information on bear family sightings. Black bear research and education in Whistler is sponsored in part by Whistler-Blackcomb and the BBC/River Road Films Ltd.