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Bear Update:

Yearling Bears I

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Whistler Black Bear Project

The dog-like snout thrusts into tall grasses. Small brown eyes navigate the jungle of cellulose-laden blades. Four canines and neighbouring incisors bypass indigestible grasses and close in on a landing pad of clover leaflets. The small bear extends her jaws and with a chopping action, shearing the leaflets loose from their stems. She chews vigorously, hesitates, and then plunges into another bushel of clover. The yearling bear hesitates in mid-chew – clover strewn from her mouth lies lazily over her teeth and loose lips. Something catches her eye. A larger black shape moving away from her through tall grasses upslope. She feels uncertain; something is wrong. She blinks a few times and cocks her ears, tracking the movement of the larger bear. She begins chewing again but a trace of panic pushes her forward. She rears on her hind legs, drops and lopes after the larger bear.

This particular bear, at this time, is named Kitkat. She is a small, brown phase daughter that has for the last 18 months been nurtured, protected, and educated by the most reliable force in the bear world – her mother Katie.

The yearling female ambles to catch up with Katie, whose pace has quickened these past few days. Mother and daughter skirt the edge of a small tree island where a hygric blanket of horsetail attracts them to feed. This is how it has been the last year amongst the habitat-rich ski area where Katie continues maternal boundaries established in 1995.

The bear family’s typical seasonal spring grazing area has changed during the last five years. Their traditional spring grazing pattern of low elevation (750-1,000 metres) feeding during May and June can be abruptly disturbed or terminated by relatively quiet, high-speed human activity. For some reason, and without any real warning, people end up almost on top of the bears. This growing danger has the bears contemplating continued use of the ski area.

And other bears come to feed on the ski trails. Every spring male bears move into the ski trails to feed and follow females. The little yearling female remembers the loss of her brother. Last summer a big male fought with her mother frequently for nearly a week until at last he caught them off guard.

Kitkat’s nose twitches, suddenly a different scent – female, but not her mom. She retreats a few steps and turns to her mother who is already to the treed edge. Another female – a large brown mother with two brown cubs emerges from a ski trail drainage ditch 60-metres away. Katie always retreats from this mother. Kitkat pauses and stares back at the mother with cubs and remembers her brother.

The afternoon sun disappears behind rising clouds as mother and daughter traverse fragmented forests and clearings of clover. Mom seems reluctant to wait and Kitkat scrambles to keep up. She’s stronger now despite losing 20 pounds over winter. At 40 pounds she’s more mobile than her 140-pound mother. She glances at mom – who is small but tough. Despite countless encounters with big bears, nervous coyotes, and humans mom always came through. She knows what trees to climb, which gullies to disappear down and how long to wait. But a dark memory exists. A creepy feeling. Kitkat shudders and glances around, just the memory giving her the spooks.

Down in Fitzsimmons Creek late last July, nearing the end of the mating period, they were bumping into male bears daily. But mom always pushed them away. They spent days in trees. Her brother was lost during the last of those fights with a male.

Adult male black bears may attempt to kill cubs-of-the-year to force the mother into breeding status.

The yearling scrambles to catch up to mom. She stops suddenly – lush grasses and clover – too good to pass up. Have to eat this. Mom is still there, a little farther away but still there. Kitkat spends the next few minutes grazing then eyes a blanket of yellow dandelion flowers. Walking over them she hits each flower, snapping the yellow heads off. She maintains a good rhythm of bobbing and snapping when her world – her secure world of 18 months – is completely shattered.

A large black bear suddenly comes charging down the slope towards her. Hair sticks up and muscles fire, igniting the instinct to run toward the edge of the ski trails where the not-so-big second growth trees provided the only escape cover. No noise, don’t waist energy crying out, just run and climb like hell.

She hit the 30-cm wide Douglas-fir trunk two-metres off the ground with both forepaws and pulled herself upward to safety. She hit so hard she almost overshot the tree and landed on the other side in tree branches.

Half way up the tree, when it was clear the larger bear was not following, Kitkat began to bawl. Long, loud wails echoed through the mountain. She sat cradled on two branches and looked down into the face of her mother. Confused, she began to descend immediately, concluding that the strange bear was gone. Mom pushed him away again. Kitkat dropped to the ground at the lower branches and became horribly confused – her mother charged the tree and her!

Flight response instinctively took over, triggering Kitkat’s mad climb to safety in the highest branches of the oversized Christmas tree. She bawled again, wailing out confusion and fear. She watched the larger black bear retreat to 40 metres and sit.

Her mother, Katie, watched the tree her yearling was in. Katie appeared distressed at the sounds of her 18-month-old cub in distress, yet instinctively she maintained her firm composure to separate from Kitkat. For a moment she contemplated her actions then decided without a doubt it was time to move on and continue the cycle for next year’s litter.

Her ears remained cocked with each wail from her yearling. Katie chuffed a few times softly. Her mood shifted again and she lunged at the tree. This time Kitkat appeared more angry than scared and began popping her jaws and blowing at her mother. Survival instinct was taking over.

Katie turned and walked away. Her daughter picked up the movement and began descending quickly to catch up. But again Katie whirled and rushed the tree. Kitkat flew to the top and clung to the leader. Katie turned and left without looking back. Kitkat watched her mother leave and began another series of low bellows of distress, the last hope for her mom’s return.

With Katie now out of site the small, vulnerable, confused female bear descended one last time and stood at the base of the tree. No mother bear rushed at her. She knew though that this was the end. She sniffed the ground where she and her mother had just grazed and turned to the security of the forest to begin a new life.

I observed this family break-up on the north side of Whistler Mountain during the evening of June 4. Family break-up is usually abrupt. There is not much grey area for mother bears – protect or not to protect.

Mothers typically raise their cubs for 17-19 months after birth in early January to mid-February. The female bear’s responsibility to cub rearing is crucial and strong during the short duration of carrying a litter.

Yearlings range from 35 to 70 pounds when they leave their mother during the second spring. When people see yearlings in the spring it is very important to understand that they are supposed to be on their own, skinny and ragged. They are not abandoned. They resemble the size of a border collie or medium-sized lab dog. Their appearance may be sad but it’s misleading – yearlings are tough and smart. More harm will come to the bears if they are influenced by human foods and behaviour.

This spring more than 300 activity reports of yearling bears have been documented and will be described during the next column, Yearling Bears II. Yearling behaviour is progressing at dangerous levels of food-conditioning where these young, impressionable bears are lured into backyards, onto decks, and into houses.

Any aggressive or damaging bear behaviour – including bears attempting to get into homes – must be reported to Conservation officers. Call 1-800-665-1388.

Spring Bear Count

Thanks to everyone’s input on the spring bear count during May and June. I’m hoping the bear count becomes tradition (much like a bird count) as every spring residents and visitors to Whistler find themselves delving a little deeper into the lives of local black bears.

The spring bear count and genetic tagging (hair-trapping) were made possible by funding from the Community Foundation of Whistler and logistical support from the Resort Municipality of Whistler, Whistler-Blackcomb bear viewing program, Fairmont Chateau Golf Club, and Whistler Museum and Archives Society. Everyone’s interest yields that much more success in the conservation of Whistler black bears. Count results will be posted in the Pique during mid-July.

Questions, information, and to report single yearling and bear family sightings (for research) call me at 604-902-1660 or e-mail mallen_coastbear@direct.ca

If you experience aggressive bear behaviours (property damage and/or home invasions) please also call the Conservation Officer Service at 1-800-665-1388. Options for more effective management may be taken in the best interest of the bear if the officer knows about specific problem behaviours immediately.

Thanks to Pique Newsmagazine for sponsorship of Bear Update columns.