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BEAR UPDATE: Monitoring Whistler's Moms By Michael Allen, Black Bear Researcher The crooked Western hemlock branch strains against the weight of the large, black, muscled rump of the mother black bear. The sight of the clinometer falls just below the bear's snout at the base of the branch. A few quick calculations reveal the height of the mother's nest at 26 metres above the forest floor. The mother lays curled on the branch facing the tree with her head turned and resting on her fore paws. I blink, she blinks. She watches as I prepare to take photographs. Her ears darting forward with each new sound from my equipment. The shutter releases and her ears move forward once again. Two pictures are enough. I sit back and watch through binoculars. Movement from between her fore and hind legs. A grapefruit-size black head appears wearing white glasses. This six-month-old cub-of-the-year shakily forces itself from the warm grasp of its mother's belly. Worn white circles surround the eyes — a result of three months of insect infestation of its facial hair while in the den. Matilda and Bonnie are a new bear family to the Blackcomb ski area. We sit in the quiet, unseasonably cool late afternoon watching one another. Thirty minutes later Bonnie sticks her head up, climbs onto her mother's dorsal side then traverses along her mom's head resting between her ears. Incredible. Telephoto lens is way too small for that shot. The mother begins to rise and stretch giving her cub a sudden boost onto the coarse bark of the Western hemlock. Time to feed. Matilda grasps the trunk of the tree with her fore paws and effortlessly rotates her rump and hind legs downhill. Fore paw over hind paw she descends with the grace of a chimp. The cub watches then skids down the bark a bit and follows mother in the same manner. Seconds later they are on the ground and walking to the ski trail edge. I sit up while talking to make sure she has a good view of my position. Matilda acknowledges my presence by hesitating a few seconds at my movement and sound then continues on to graze. Bonnie sees me too and huddles closer to her mother's hind legs. For the next 20 minutes Matilda grazes while Bonnie repeatedly attacks her paws, climbing onto her mother's legs. Matilda gives her a firm but gentle toss and the cub rolls a metre along the grassy slope. In the past five years (June 1994-June 1999) 13 adult female black bears have produced 40 cubs in 22 litters within the Whistler Interpretive Forest, Whistler Mountain, and Blackcomb Mountain sub-populations. Mean litter size from combined sub-populations is 1.8 cubs per litter. Mean litter size of mothers with access to human food (landfill; 2.3 cubs per litter) is nearly double that of mothers without (ski area; 1.3 cubs per litter) access to human food. These mothers have been the subject of extensive comprehensive reproductive fitness observations to learn which factors impact cub production, survival, and habitat use. Landfill adult females produce consistently larger litters due to high calorie human foods which accelerate female weight, promoting healthier pregnancies. Ski area adult females maintain their territories in natural habitat with little to no access to human foods. Although ski area bear foods are enhanced from ski trail design, bears remain vulnerable to frequent fall berry crop failures due to extreme changes in weather (temperature). Only two adult females (out of five potential mothers) have given birth so far this year. One ski area mother has produced one cub and one landfill mother has produced three cubs. Thanks to persons from Whistler, Pemberton, and Birken that have provided information regarding bear family sightings. Bear activity is exceptionally high in the valley bottom habitats this spring due to the prolonged snowpack at mid-elevations. People must accept the responsibility for keeping developed areas clean so that bears passing through to feed on natural food are not attracted to human food. Learning about bears and exercising a higher tolerance for close natural bear activity are the two key elements to a successful co-existence. Bear education programs are sponsored in part by Whistler-Blackcomb, Whistler Museum and Archives, and Pique Newsmagazine. Questions or information about black bears call 935-1176.

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