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Bear Update

Who is the bear guy?

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By Michael Allen

Bear Researcher

In the light of the crescent moon a massive male black bear lifts his head to the approach of the female. Beneath the shadows of this midnight moon her slight silhouette vanishes within the 500 lb form of the male. Head on, both fall into the tandem tearing of stringy but succulent clover leaflets from the stronghold of the ski trail. On the third night of their 4-5 day courtship, the dominant male and female find solitude and comfort in the blackness of a colder summer night. Their brief union represents the only social companionship for opposite sexes in the entire year. It is one of the most intriguing behaviors I witness from the thousands of hours of bear observations over the last 14 years.

As I sit some 20 metres from the bears (they moved closer to me from 100 metres), I ponder aloud (so the bears know and recognize me) as to how I ended up here in Whistler, a place that now serves as the front-line of daily effort to teach thousands of people each year about the different lives of 75 or so resident bears. People call me the “bear guy” because I think they honestly don’t know what I am, or what I do, in an official capacity — other than hang out with bears.

I am not a bear biologist or conservation officer, as many people have reasonably assumed. I also, for personal reasons, do not work with or for the Bear Smart program. I can provide lots of information on bears — seasonal behavior, identity, and abundance — but do not have any official status on bear management action, if you have a problem with bears.

The only official status I have with bears is as a bear-viewing guide for Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains during the last eight years.

When I was a kid, sure, I wanted to be a bear scientist and handle bears at winter dens; weigh cubs while examining mothers in detail; place radio collars on bears so that I could follow their annual movements — that was indeed my dream but I never got there, for many reasons.

In the 22 years of observation-based bear studies, I haven’t seen a bear tranquilized or even trapped. And unfortunately, I don’t play much of a role in Whistler bear management. I left the Whistler Bear Working Group because I felt like a minority on several issues and after a while you just lose the drive if everyone else is in a different gear, so to speak. Besides, I was the least educated person in the group.

Everything I know now about black bears has come directly from the field, with the exception of the basis of hibernation physiology. Even during hibernation, I have managed to record respiration rates, ecological relationships with winter recreation and climate, and determined birth dates and post-natal behaviors. I have read hundreds of papers on bear research — the science definitely intriguing, but I only believe what I can verify through field observation.

I simply function as an independent (self taught) bear researcher, guide, and educator whose goal is to build a complete profile of a mother bear’s life through long-term data to improve people’s understanding of our unique (and very dynamic) black bear population.

It is hardly simple though. I have managed to keep track of the ecology of at least 30 female bears and their relationships with 25 males during half their lifetime. Over the next 10 years the annual cycles, and ultimately the lives, of many of my study bears will be complete. This product will be the greatest amount of detailed information on black bear life history in British Columbia and will arm me with highly effective education tools to continue my awareness with students and the public.

During pre-Olympic development phases, bears are going to experience tough seasons, and with the likelihood of increased summer visitation during pre- and post-Olympic years will bring more pressure to the sometimes fragile bear-human interface in Whistler. Whatever the outcome for this bear population though, I am here to watch, learn, and teach.

July represents the summer transition in diet and behavior as resident bears move higher into the mountains, leaving open grazing areas to search for carpenter ants and the honeycomb/larva from beehives. Adult males continue to move through female spring activity areas as the breeding period continues until late July.

Four mothers have yet to separate from yearlings (2006 cubs). Berry ripening will be late this summer with many shrubs above 1,500-metres still buried in snow. The critical berry crop above 1,500-metres is in danger of being delayed (normally begins ripening in early Aug) until mid-September or later. Although it is better to have a delayed crop than an early berry crop, the further it is delayed, the fewer days for bears to forage berries.

I will make a detailed assessment of berry abundance by mid-July and will have a forecast for the berry season and corresponding bear response. Berry days — the number of days berries are available to forage by bears at a given range of elevation — have been tracked in Whistler since 1996.

More of my bear photos will be on display at Bear Pause during ArtWalk and a public presentation (sponsored by the Whistler Museum and Archives Society) on the behavior of mother bears is planned for July 28.

For questions or bear family sightings call 698-6709 or e-mail mallen_coastbear@direct.ca Thanks to everyone for bear sighting information.